On the Road
Enric saw the confusion and dismay on his companion’s face, as the green spot they had discovered a while before hadn’t upon their approach grown as much as she had expected it to. He well remembered his own first impression a few years ago, when he and Vran’el had neared that particular oasis. After two days of riding through the desert he had been thirsting for any patch of green, for trees, for shade from the relentless sun that was in the city merely a nuisance when one had to venture out during the hottest time of the day, but which posed a real danger out here.
“This is it?” she moaned. “Why did you say this was the highlight of our way through the desert? I don’t see much of an improvement on the camps we stayed at for these last two nights! This is just cruel! Never again will I believe you about anything! Ever.”
He didn’t reply to her whining. It was only a matter of about one hour until they reached the Camp of Malriel’s cousin and she would see for herself that he hadn’t been playing any cruel joke on her. And he was too exhausted to argue with her right now. Just like he himself, she would find it hard to believe from mere words that this was an extensive oasis, a little paradise within stretches of the never-ending sand and rocks and air that flickered with the heat wherever one looked.
The two days riding through the desert with her had been anything but unalloyed pleasure. Though that had not been solely her fault. When there was little to entertain the eye for hours on end, the mind had time to wander. Which was not a good thing if one had just left one’s son behind and had much time to miss him, wonder how he was doing, ponder whether he was sad at this exact moment.
They had started the memorising process of Erbál’s code for the correspondence to and from Kar. Both to take care of a necessary task and as a means of passing at least some time in a useful manner.
“How do we spell words we don’t have a codeword for?” he returned to that topic. They could as well use this last hour.
“I don’t know.”
“You didn’t even think about it. Come on. This is an easy one.”
She sighed and thought for a moment, then proved him right by answering, “When the sentence starts with the word I, it shows that he is about to spell something by hiding letters in the next words in that sentence.”
“Which pattern does he use for it?”
She closed her eyes to try and visualise the shelf in her study in Anyueel where it was all etched into the wood. “Last letter of the first word, first letter of the second, fourth letter of the third, third letter of the fourth, then it all starts anew. This has no logic behind it! How is one to remember all of it?”
“That’s the idea, my love. Everything that follows certain logic can be deciphered by rational thinking and having access to enough information about a person. He avoids using regular patterns as much as he can. He can’t entirely do without them, but reduces them so much that knowing only the regular ones would by no means be enough to glean useful information from a message. They merely indicate that there is some information to follow. Getting to the actual information is the real challenge. Now, what meaning does the word house have when used in a message only once?”
“Danger,” she replied without hesitation. That one she easily remembered. It had been in his latest message to her, where he had informed her of the impending assassination attempt on Queen Del’na’bened.
“And when it is used twice?”
“Secret. Another combination for that meaning would also be message and read in the same sentence.”
“Well done. Why does he have more combinations for the same word?”
“Because he doesn’t want to make it obvious that there is hidden information by using the same words too frequently,” she obediently reiterated what he had told her on the first day of their journey.
“Which words are an urgent call for help?”
“Incredibly tired or negligible.”
“How does he refer to the government in Kar?” he asked on.
“Family. What does he call the magicians there?”
“I can’t remember! The sun is frying my brain, so leave me be, if you can bear to be idle for even a single moment,” she snarled in a mix of frustration and annoyance.
Enric conformed to her wish. He had wanted to distract her a little, but this was obviously not the right way.
They rode on in silence for a few minutes, before she brought up the man who would grant them shelter for their last night in the desert. “You said Ganel is Malriel’s cousin. And that he had quite a number of companions and children.”
“Last time I saw him he had six companions and more than thirty children. Might be more now.”
Eryn shook her head in incomprehension. “How can any woman agree to be merely one of several companions? Were they all forced into this?”
“That may still be the case in certain tribes, but fortunately that has become less and less common. In Ganel’s case I am told he never joins a woman who isn’t willing to live with him in the oasis and share him with a number of other companions. He is not a cruel man who collects women and children like trophies. Not what one might think when first hearing he has so many of each. Malriel told me that three of them were joined to other men before and were horribly abused. With Ganel they can mostly surround themselves with other women and do not have to lie with him more often than they feel comfortable with, since there are others to fulfil that need. A curious arrangement, I will admit. Certainly not one I could imagine for myself. But as long as everyone involved is content with it, I won’t criticise.”
Eryn didn’t reply, but tried to imagine what their life had to be like. Especially in this small spot of green ahead of them. How did they all even fit inside?
Enric indulged himself by imagining how their son would likely be having his midday meal right about now. Probably with Pe’tala and his cousin Zahyn. Malriel would be busy at this time, as would Valrad and Rolan at the Clinic. He thought about Orrin and whether he was angry at being sent to Takhan without his family, having to leave his own child behind to protect his superior’s son.
“What’s that? Another one?” he heard Eryn wonder and looked up.
Ah yes, they had reached the spot where the other end of the oasis started coming into view without revealing the middle part that stretched away from them and was therefore not yet visible. For now it looked like two unconnected spots of sparse vegetation.
“No, it’s the other end of the very same oasis. It’s shaped like a half moon. We’ll soon reach one end and can then follow the trees and bushes to its centre. That will afford us at least some shade.”
A little later they had reached the first few measly palm trees and seemingly dry scrub that carpeted the ground between them. Gradually the palms became denser and lusher the further they advanced.
Eryn made it a game to silently count the seconds from one shady spot to the next, noting how her horse tried to linger whenever they reached another tall tree that protected them from the sun.
After a while the entire extent of the oasis revealed itself as they came closer to the wide centre and could now see how the line of trees stretched from the end they had spotted earlier to the far one.
“Look at that! It’s huge!” Eryn marvelled, feeling her good spirits returning. “Maybe I was a little premature in deciding not to believe you about anything ever again,” she added by way of an apology.
“Glad to hear that,” Enric replied magnanimously and pointed ahead of them to a few structures that were hard to make out in detail but were clearly man-made. “You see this? We are almost there.” He thought of the pond with the waterfall he and Vran’el had dived into shortly after their arrival here on their journey back then. He hadn’t mentioned that to Eryn but wanted to see her face when he took her there.
The outlines of the tents and the few stone constructions that Enric knew were used as storage space became more distinct the closer they came.
Eryn whistled through her teeth. “That almost looks like a little town!”
“I think you could compare it to one, yes. They have extra tents for cooking, eating, for schooling the children, several for the children to sleep in, and this huge one over there is Ganel’s. That’s where he receives his guests.”
“The companions also share one large tent to sleep in? Or do they stay in his?” she enquired, wondering about how agreeable it could be to listen to the sounds of intercourse with whichever woman he chose to spend the night with.
“No, not at all. Quite the opposite. They each have their own tent. I can’t tell you what they look like on the inside, since asking for permission to examine them would have sent the wrong message.”
“I’m glad to hear that you showed such great restraint when it came to inspecting other women’s sleeping spaces,” she commented with a voice too sweet to be authentic.
Finally, they reached the settlement and were greeted by two women, dressed in flowing desert clothes, one with a small child of about three years sitting on her hip. One appeared to be in her mid-twenties, the other with the child looked about twenty years older. Their clothes looked simple but well-made and clean, as did the child’s.
“Be welcome,” one of them, the older one, smiled up at them. “Do dismount and allow me to take care of your animals. They must be exhausted from this long ride through the desert. Just as you must. My name is Mial, I am Ganel’s companion.” She touched the other woman’s arm and introduced her. “This is Rior, Ganel’s companion.” Then her eyes narrowed slightly as she eyed Enric as though considering where she had seen him before.
“A good day to you, ladies. We thank you for your hospitality. This is my companion Maltheá, and I am Enric.”
“Eryn,” Eryn murmured in his direction.
“No, not here,” he replied equally quietly before dismounting.
Surprised, Eryn looked at the woman who had greeted them as she burst into laughter. “But of course! Enric! Last time you were here with Valrad’s boy! You let Ganel fool you into drinking with him and looked like you were about to collapse any moment the next morning. And you ran through the camp naked! None of us had ever seen a yellow-haired man before, and then so much of him at once!”
Eryn stared at the woman, then at Enric, seeing to her infinite surprise that he was actually – blushing! There were a few rare occasions when she had seen his face redden with anger, but never before had she seen blood flush his cheeks from embarrassment! She loved it and started laughing as well.
After several moments of clinging to her saddle for fear of doubling over from amusement, she finally made it to the ground unscathed.
“Funny, he never told me about that! We must sit down together and talk, Mial.”
Mial smiled and handed the boy to Eryn as though it were the most natural thing in the world to entrust complete strangers with helpless offspring. Nor did the child appear alarmed at being held by a woman he had never seen before, but gave her a smile that revealed two missing front teeth. Eryn’s heart melted.
“It will be my pleasure. If you mind our little one for a bit, I will take care of your horses.” Without waiting for a reply, she took the reins of all three animals and led them away.
“Come,” Rior now offered, “I will take you to Ganel. I know he has been looking forward to your arrival ever since Malriel sent him a bird.” Her gaze studied Eryn. “You really do look a lot like her. But I am sure people tell you this all the time.”
Eryn smiled politely. They did. And she hated it.
They were led to the large tent they had already spotted from afar. Rior entered first, pushing aside the heavy curtains.
“Ganel? Our guests are here.”
Eryn and Enric followed her in, needing a few moments to adapt their eyes from the blazing sunlight to the comparatively dim light within the tent.
Rior stepped towards a man dozing on a heap of almost ridiculously richly embroidered cushions, snoring quietly, and nudged him with her foot. Not rudely, but in a way that was likely to get his attention.
“Ganel, get up and greet your guests! You knew they had to arrive some time around noon, so how can you just fall asleep?”
Eryn blinked at the man who had to be in his sixties or seventies, being scolded by his companion who was young enough to be his daughter. Granddaughter even.
“You are absolutely right, my little desert flower,” he uttered groggily and clumsily climbed to his feet. His expression brightened. “Enric! And little Maltheá! There you are!” He stepped towards Eryn, plucked the boy from her arms to hand it to Rior and without any prior warning pulled her into a hearty embrace. “I have heard so much about you!” He held her at arms’ length, letting his gaze take in all of her that was visible with her current attire. “And they are right! I could pick you out of a thousand women, ten thousand even!” He grabbed her chin and turned her face this way and that. “Amazing! Malriel’s face, though… The nose is not an exact match. A little bit of Vel’kim in there.”
Gently but with determination Eryn closed her fingers around his wrist and lowered his hand. “Ganel, it is my pleasure to meet you. I truly appreciate your hospitality, especially since I have recently discovered that I was not made for the desert. But if you don’t stop treating me like a mare at a horse market and keep your hands off my face, I shall have to break them. Not for long, mind you. I’d heal them again. But it would still hurt. You, that is – I won’t feel a thing.”
Ganel stared at her, then barked out a laugh. “Ah, it is like coming home! I fear the day I meet an obliging, tame Aren woman! It will be the death of me! Fearsome bunch, but so exhilarating!”
“You are Aren as well, aren’t you?” asked Eryn, confused. She only ever heard members of other Houses and a few brave people without the protection a House which could avenge their premature violent demise, talk that way of Aren women.
“Of course. Which means I know them quite well.” His expression became dreamy for a moment. “You have met my aunt, Malhora, have you not? She is a legend. I hear that people still become nervous whenever she visits the city. But you are also doing fine for yourself, if I am to believe the tales. Collapsing the Senate building, eh?”
“Not the entire building, just the roof,” she corrected him with a slightly uneasy feeling. This incident was a cautionary tale, a reminder of what happened when a powerful magician lost control over herself. She certainly didn’t consider it one of her more glorious moments. Therefore she didn’t agree when people depicted it as some admirable feat instead of the dangerous failure it actually was.
He waved her off. “Does not matter. You gave us all something to remember, and Arens like to be associated with powerful deeds.” He turned towards Enric and hugged him as well. “My fair-haired friend! I am thrilled to have you here at my humble home once again!”
Enric grinned, replying in a way he knew would please Ganel. “There is nothing humble about your home, my friend. It is a shameless demonstration of how incredibly well you are doing, awakening the envy of everyone who is lucky enough to be made welcome here.”
The older man laughed. “I will admit that I am not a pauper, yet after seeing nothing but sand for two days, you would consider even a cloth put up between two trees luxury. But we can talk more later. I can see that you are in need of refreshment. We prepared a tent for you and you will be brought food, and fresh water that has not been inside a leather pouch for many hours. Afterwards you can take a bath, and then we will sit down and have a pleasant evening together.”
Eryn blinked, her brain refusing to believe what her ears insisted they just caught. “A bath? With… water?”
Ganel sent her a doubtful look. “Yes, Maltheá, that is how we generally take a bath in these parts. What did you expect? A tub full of sand?” He laughed loudly at his own joke, then looked at Rior. “Will you please take our guests to their tent and make sure they are fed? It would be most appreciated.”
* * *
Eryn followed Mial into Ganel’s large tent, which didn’t need to shy away from comparisons to the main room of a Takhan residence when it came to comfort and style. It certainly was about as spacious – more luxurious, even. This probably resulted from the need to create a stark contrast to the drab desert.
The tent was empty but for the two women. Ganel had taken Enric to show him the tent where his companions produced skilful embroidery that generally fetched a good price. Alwidinar, tribe chieftain and father of the new Queen of Anyueel, had spent a minor fortune to have his daughter’s commitment gown adorned with gold thread arranged in complex patterns.
Mial motioned for Eryn to take a seat on the large, luxurious cushions. Eryn did and sighed contentedly. She felt like a new woman. All the sand, dust and sweat that had clung to her in the most inconvenient places was gone for now, and her body had cooled down enough for her to actually feel comfortable for a change.
The pool she and Enric had taken their bath in seemed as though from another world. The water had been so clear one could see all the way to the bottom, its colour turquoise in some places, blue in others. The waterfall at one end that fed the basin with crystal clear, cold water, originated from the nearby mountain range that formed the border with Pirinkar. The water followed the foothills of the mountains, flowing partly underground and fast enough to resist the sun’s attempt at heating it up.
They had swum in it, splashing around like boisterous children. She had heard about how Vran’el had stolen Enric’s clothes so that her companion had been forced to run past all these women and children completely and utterly naked.
There had been a moment of melancholy when they regretted that they couldn’t show this wondrous place to Vedric. Enric had promised her to return here with their son, showing him what travelling in the desert truly meant and what beautiful rewards awaited the traveller who was willing to brave the hostile expanses of sand.
Without asking, Mial handed her a cool sweet drink. “I am sure Ganel and Enric will soon return.”
“Thank you. Can you sit with me for a bit or do you have pressing things to take care of?”
“Nothing that cannot wait.” The woman went to get herself something to drink as well and sat down next to Eryn, shifting a few cushions to make herself comfortable.
“Can I ask you something? You don’t have to answer, of course. Just tell me if I am being inappropriately curious,” Eryn began.
Mial nodded encouragingly.
“How do you like life here in your little island in the middle of the desert? I assume there is not much chance for you to venture out much, is there?”
The older woman smiled indulgently. “Maltheá, if I wished to travel the country, I would not have agreed to join a man who was intent on building his own little empire in the middle of nowhere. This may not be for everyone, but for me it is exactly what I want.”
Eryn considered the other woman, wondering if she was one of the three women who had been abused before her commitment to Ganel. If yes, living circumstances like these, a quiet paradise, would very likely be infinitely preferable to what she’d had to endure before.
“It is beautiful here, I grant you that. I was invited to plantations of some of the Houses not far from the mountains in the east and west, yet nothing I saw there came even close to what you have here. When I first saw that waterfall of yours, I refused to believe my eyes.”
“Then you must return here. With your little son. Malriel visits us every now and again, always telling us about how bright and handsome he is.”
Eryn blinked. “She does? Visit you, I mean.” She tried to imagine Malriel in baggy desert clothes instead of the expensive, flowing styles she preferred, voluntarily spending days on horseback just to visit her cousin and his many companions far away from the city.
“Oh, yes. Ever since her journey to Pirinkar, when she spent one night here and another several months later when she returned with Enric and Vran’el, she has taken a few days off from her busy schedule to return here. She says it is a place where she does not have to worry, where she can relax without having to be a Head of House or a Triarch for a short time. She usually does this when you are on the other side of the sea, since she does not wish to sacrifice time with her family.”
Eryn took another sip, not wanting to dwell on the topic of Malriel. “And you don’t mind that Ganel has so many other companions? I have only ever lived with Enric and would find the idea of sharing him very disturbing.”
Mial smiled. “I do not mind at all. It is not only us who are sharing him, after all. He also has to share us with each other.”
Eryn frowned for a moment, before understanding dawned on her. “So you…? With each other?”
“Certainly. Ganel has eight companions at present, so we can hardly expect of the poor man to satisfy all our needs regularly. He is not getting any younger, and this might kill him after a while. Not all of us sleep with the other women, but most of us do.”
Oh dear. That conversation was not going in a direction she felt particularly comfortable with. She shouldn’t have asked that question since she did not feel willing to venture any deeper into that area.
“But none of the women has a second companion? This is a privilege limited to Ganel?”
Mial laughed. “No, none. You think you need to free us all from what you must consider a terrible injustice – one man with eight women, who must work for him, raise his many children, do whatever he decrees and take their turns as his concubine.”
“Let me assure you that we all chose this life voluntarily. He did not deceive any of us with regard to what expected us. For each and every one of us this here is a much better life than what would have expected us if we had stayed with our tribes or what we actually got away from in some cases. Ganel used to travel a lot and was the guest of many a tribe. Two of us he freed with considerable personal risk for himself, others sought him out and one was brought to him by her father who had decided that she brought shame to the tribe but could not bear the thought of killing her.” She smiled. “This is how we all landed here. And why we are all grateful for the chance to be here. Few of us are in love with Ganel, that much I will admit. But we love him in a different way. We value him for the man he is, for what he did for us, for his big heart. Our children are our gift to him, as are our efforts to aid what he likes to call our joint business that keeps us all in the kind of luxury you find hardly anywhere else outside the city.”
At that moment, the heavy curtains were pushed aside, and in stepped Ganel and Enric. Eryn was grateful for their arrival, feeling slightly foolish for the arrogance with which she had tried to convince the woman that she was being treated as little more than a servant.
“Ah, what a sight for my eyes,” Ganel gushed as he beheld them. “Did you have a pleasant time waiting for us? Not too pleasant, I hope, or our company would be unwelcome.”
Mial smiled. “I found it pleasant. Maltheá certainly is her mother’s daughter.”
Eryn was about to ask why exactly she was being insulted like that, yet remembered in time that people who appreciated Malriel would not consider such a comparison an insult. So she just raised her eyebrows and waited to hear what had led her conversation partner to such an unflattering assessment.
“She tried to convince me that a woman should not have to share a single man with so many others,” she smiled, then took Ganel’s hand into hers to press an affectionate kiss onto it.
Eryn wanted to dissolve into thin air. Or be swallowed by the ground underneath her. Either option would suffice. Embarrassment caused her cheeks to flush red, and she began to explain herself.
But Ganel merely threw his head back and laughed with genuine amusement. “Of course! An Aren woman cannot bear the thought of having to share anything – yet I would bet everything I own that they would not object were things the other way round, if I were one of eight companions to a woman.”
Eryn wanted to disagree, but closed her mouth again. For some reason she couldn’t really grasp and put words to, he was right – somehow it would have been different had it been the other way round.
Ganel, who had been watching her, patted her head patronisingly. “I see that my fortune is safe. Your face says it all.”
Another of Ganel’s companions stuck her head in through the curtain and asked, “Dinner is ready. Would you like to eat in here or join the rest of us outside?”
“Join you,” Eryn replied quickly. She was glad that Ganel wasn’t angry at her for what Mial had told him, but she also didn’t feel like being teased by him all evening long.
* * *
Enric rode ahead as they reached the pass that led through the mountain range.
“Raise a shield,” he instructed his companion and did the same. “Make sure it also protects the packhorse.”
She did and looked around to check whether anything dangerous lurked in the afternoon shadows that had induced him to be quite so careful. Then she remembered that he had a long time ago mentioned some incident with robbers when he and Vran’el had travelled through these parts.
Enric was glad when the heat began to change from pressing to merely unpleasant. As the rocky structures to either side of them began to grow in height and grant them some shade, he removed his headdress, enjoying the air on his clammy neck.
“Do we know how big Pirinkar is?” Eryn asked. “I don’t think I ever saw a map of the country anywhere. Do we even have one?”
“No to both. I imagine they would consider that a strategic advantage not to be given away to a country they always made sure not to get too close with. Even less now. This is the second time within a few years that they have been on the brink of war with the Western Territories, after all.”
“But Pirinkar does possess maps of the Western Territories, I assume?”
Enric shrugged. “I should think so.”
“And of the Kingdom?”
“I imagine that is likely, too. We have never kept that a great secret, and the mapmakers are free to sell their products to whomever is willing to pay their prices.”
Eryn chewed on her lower lip. “Is that wise?”
“That remains to be seen. Should the worst come to pass and Takhan fall, we can only hope that they would not be able to work out how to cross the magical barrier in the sea.”
That statement worried her. “So you think there is a realistic chance they might defeat the Order? At least I assume that the Order would aid the Western Territories in their hour of need?”
“As regards the latter, I should certainly think so. Particularly after the King just strengthened the bond between the two countries with his commitment to Del’na’bened. As for defeat… It’s always dangerous to be too assured of one’s chances of victory. We know next to nothing about them, just that they feel contempt for magicians and have an aptitude with mechanical devices. There is no information concerning whether they have a standing army, its size, how capable they are, whether they have discovered any means we are unaware of to engage magicians without magic, and so on. They might even reconsider limiting their magicians to healing services at the temples and instead let them join the fight if there were any real danger of losing a battle. I only hope there are no priests who have secretly trained in combat skills. That would be inconvenient in battle. For us, I mean.”
They rode on in silence for a while, Enric never taking his eyes off their surroundings.
Eryn decided to revisit another piece of information. “About this obsession with full names… Lam, Etor and Gistor are their titles connected to academic achievements. Holm, Reig and Legen are family positions. And then there are two more for priests which I forgot. That would make me…” She took a moment to put together the pieces. “Lam Eryn, Reig of House Vel’kim.”
Enric smiled, which Eryn couldn’t see since he was riding in front of her. “You didn’t look at the papers the Triarchy prepared for us, did you?”
“They contain what will in Pirinkar be considered our full names.” He rummaged around in the leather bag he wore slung across his chest and pulled out said papers. Stopping the horse, he motioned for Eryn to come as close as the narrow path permitted and stretched out his hand to pass her the documents.
She unfolded them and scanned the first page until she found their names. Lam Enric, Reig of House Aren, Second-in-Command of the Order. Lam, because he had completed his studies of the law in Takhan. Reig, because he was Malriel’s heir to her position. Followed by his function. That was exactly how she herself would put it together.
She looked at the name on the next page and frowned. Gistor Maltheá, Reig of House Vel’kim, Explorer in Takhan.
“What nonsense is that? Isn’t Gistor a title so aloof that you can’t even obtain it through mere studies but only through some extraordinary feat? And why explorer and not healer?”
“Your studies in the field of healing were extensive enough to justify a title higher than Lam, and your impressive achievements in different areas should be enough to see you accredited with the highest honour possible. With regard to saying you are a healer – we were warned not to remind people of our blemish of being magicians. And the profession of healer would accomplish exactly that every time somebody greeted you. It is also a convenient term in case we have to explain how you earned the title of Gistor. Being an explorer means you made finding out new things your calling.”
“They call you Second-in-Command of the Order,” she argued. “How is this not constantly reminding them of your magic? The Order is an organisation for magicians!”
“Yet not one many of them are familiar with. That’s why they didn’t write Order of Magicians. If somebody asked what the Order was, I could always answer that it is an institution dedicated to military defence of the country. This wouldn’t be a lie, all considered. And it would remind them that we were not quite as remiss in honing our battle skills as our friends in the Western Territories.”
Eryn folded the papers again and handed them back to Enric. “I still think it’s presumptuous for me to simply assume their highest title would be appropriate for me.”
He returned the documents to his bag and resumed riding.
“You are not the one doing the assuming, my love,” he said over his shoulder. “It was the Triarchy which did. That means that trying to appear modest and instead calling yourself Lam or Etor would just confuse them since that’s not what it says on the papers. And you’d better believe me when I tell you that they are submissively dependent on rules. If who you claim to be and who your papers say you are don’t match, they might not even grant you access into Kar.”
“Gistor Maltheá, Reig of House Vel’kim, Explorer in Takhan,” she murmured several times to make the name stick to her mind. “How about the two of us? Will we be calling each other by our full names when anyone can hear us or are we allowed a more casual address since we are joined?”
“We may use the short forms of each other’s names.”
“Will that be Maltheá or Eryn in my case? Can we ask of them to accept that or will they eject me from their city if we confuse them too much?”
“Eryn is fine between the two of us, I should think. We can always say it is some sort of affectionate pet name I have for you.”
She nodded, satisfied with that solution. Having to reside in a foreign and probably hostile place without her son was bad enough, but having Enric address her with that name she detested since it still connected her to Malriel, would be too much.
“We will need to explain to them why your companion looks a lot like the woman they think is your mother,” she then reminded him. “We could tell them that we are siblings. Which legally speaking is not so far from the truth.”
Enric’s shoulders lifted and fell with a sigh. “We are trying to make them cooperate with us, not loathe us even more. Our being magicians is bad enough already – we can’t make them believe we come from a place where brother and sister are permitted or even encouraged to have offspring together.”
“I was your companion before I became your sister,” she grinned, knowing he didn’t care for it when she referred to herself as his sibling.
“Let’s just stay with the truth, shall we? It’s the lesser evil in this case. And since many of them may still be distrustful of Malriel, knowing that you officially left her family might earn you their goodwill. Your resemblance makes it impossible to deny a connection between the two of you, when all is said and done.”
“You know, people who might like me better because I cut myself off from Malriel may actually not be quite that bad.”
“Certainly not all of them. But let’s not forget that a few of them are still trying their hand as warmongers.”
Eryn screwed up her nose. “Ah yes, there was that little thing.”
* * *
Eryn’s stomach growled as they proceeded along the gravel road. She knew it was only a matter of a few hours until they reached the city of Kar, yet at this very moment the thought of having to wait that long for a meal was almost unbearable. Yet the alternative was not particularly attractive, either.
Desert people knew how to make food durable for a longer journey, and longevity was indeed its most prominent quality. It was clearly not meant to provide any culinary satisfaction but merely keep the traveller alive long enough to one day reach a place offering proper food.
They had made camp three times so far, yet since Eryn would refuse anything Enric hunted down, he didn’t bother with the effort it required. Instead they had tried roasting the dried food over the fire to try and improve the taste. It hadn’t worked.
The scenery was probably the main problem, Eryn mused. It didn’t provide enough variety or exotic otherness to distract her from her hunger. In the desert, she had been anxious to keep every surface of her body covered and her insides sufficiently hydrated without depleting their water supply too quickly. In the mountains she was careful not to bump her riding horse or the packhorse into anything hard or to slip. In addition, she had kept her eyes open for bandits. All this had been a welcome change after the desert. It was cooler, the sun was less hard on the eyes, everything was less sandy and monotonous. After crossing the mountains and reaching the foothills, they had almost from one minute to the next found themselves within a lush jungle that was such an absurd contrast to what lay on the other side of the mountain that Eryn had at first just stared at it, speechless. Vran’el had told her about this some time ago, yet she had instead attributed this to his inclination to exaggerate.
After overcoming her shock, she had been most delighted to realise that this had to be where the insects transmitting the sleeping illness came from. She had carefully kept her eyes open, disappointed when she had spotted none that matched the pictures and the description from the book Enric had given her a few years ago. She had mentioned that to Enric, but he had merely smiled and expressed his relief.
It took only a few hours to ride through this verdant yet damp realm with its trees rising up higher than any Eryn had seen before and holding so much water in the air that their clothes clung to their skin after only a few minutes. It had been a different kind of heat than she knew from the desert. As if the air was pulling the water out of her pores, exhausting her far more within a very short time than the dry, relentless heat in the Western Territories was able to.
Enric, ever ready and willing to educate those less well-informed than himself, explained to her how the mountains hindered the clouds from crossing over and therefore forced them to release all their dampness regularly on this side of the mountain range.
Eryn soon saw that this overly lush growth was only limited to a comparatively small area. The further they left the mountains behind them, the more the scenery turned into what she knew from the Kingdom. The edges of the forests they passed even consisted of the same species of trees Eryn knew from home, and there were wide meadows with several herbs she recognised.
They rode up the slight incline of a hill, and Eryn stared when suddenly the city of Kar appeared before her, perched on the edge of a huge lake that made a bend, as if to gently embrace the mass of colourful houses, promising protection from whatever destructive influence might come its way.
Enric smiled at her amazement. “It’s quite a sight, isn’t it?”
“It’s so… full of colour. That’s odd. This is not at all what I expected from a place that was described as sober and somehow bleak in its blind obedience to rules.” She took another look. There was no city wall, just as in Takhan. Did they really trust the lake to be an unsurmountable barrier to any intruders? That they would be able to shoot at – and hit – any boats which might make their way across the water in the dead of night? Or were they so confident that no enemy would ever make it far enough actually to attack the city? They were either hiding some powerful weapon in the midst of the city or were so overconfident in their capabilities that it bordered on cockiness.
“A place full of contrasts,” Enric nodded. “By the way, a little ahead, where you see the bend in the road with that wide tree, this is where I fell off my horse when you were giving birth to Vedric.”
She smiled, not showing even the smallest hint of compassion. “Well, I can only say that this here is certainly a much more appealing place than the room at the Clinic they put me into.”
“Let me tell you that I had little mind to appreciate the scenery at that time,” he replied, slightly grumpy at having his sufferings downplayed.
“Funny thing, I was very aware of my surroundings back then. I remember the pictures they had on the wall. Still have, I should say. Happy little sketches of children playing in the streets and some such. Scenes that without a doubt were intended to remind the poor, suffering mothers why they were going through with all this. Didn’t work on me, though. Had I been able to walk, I probably would have torn them off the walls and smashed them.”
He chuckled. “You may be the only woman I know who becomes aggressive when exposed to what is generally considered a soothing influence.”
They returned their attention to the city before them, marvelling how the water around it made it resemble a precious, multi-coloured gem in a sparkling blue setting.
“You know,” Eryn mused, mollified by the beautiful sight, “now that I actually see the place, going there doesn’t seem quite as horrific anymore. Right now I feel as though there is no challenge we cannot master in this place.”
Enric didn’t reply. He wasn’t feeling quite as confident.
They rode on, then he reached out for her reigns to stop her horse as a sudden thought occurred to him.
“You did learn how to erect shields and connect them to a person’s life force, didn’t you? Just like the shield Ved’al placed inside you when you were a young girl? After he saved you from this rape attempt?”
Surprised, she lifted up her eyebrows. “I did, yes. It wasn’t a skill I needed to achieve for the certificate in Takhan, but Valrad showed me how it works a few years ago. Am I to assume you want me to place a shield just like it inside me once again? Before we enter Kar?”
“I would feel better if you did, yes.”
Eryn briefly considered arguing, but decided against it. It was a minor thing without any unwelcome side effects and would ease his mind. Closing her eyes, she concentrated on erecting a shield around her reproductive organs, stretching it until it barred admission to where Enric had insisted no-one but himself was permitted. That was the simple part. Well, simple for someone who knew the exact characteristics such as permeability and strengths that were required for a shield in this exact spot and for this purpose. This was not just about creating a barrier that stopped everything that came its way from either direction. There were liquids that needed to pass in several directions. And it still needed to permit Enric’s entry.
The second part was linking the barrier twofold. For once, there had to be an energy source that could not just be cut off by means of a golden belt or manacles but continued to feed the shield no matter what occurred outside. This energy source did not depend on the strong, consciously wielded magic, but the underlying one that was embedded in every drop of blood and every tiny bit of organ tissue in her body. This almost undetectably low level of magic would only cease to exist when the body it inhabited died.
The second link was the one to her emotions. They were the trigger to how penetrable the shield was. In addition to lust, there was a range of positive feelings that rendered the barrier inactive and therefore permitted entrance. Any feeling of threat, disgust, fear, distrust or anger from her side, however, would make it impenetrable and so impossible for anyone to force sexual intercourse with her. In addition, the attacker would experience excruciating pain in his nether regions that would very likely put him off trying again anything of that sort for quite a while.
After both links were properly in place, she opened her eyes again. “Done.”
“Thank you,” he smiled and took her hand to kiss it. “I appreciate it. And also, that you are indulging me even though I can see that you don’t deem it necessary.”
“If this is all it takes to save you at least some worry, I’ll gladly oblige you.”
They resumed the last part of their journey.
“Vedric would have loved the colourful buildings,” Enric murmured. “And the lake. He has never seen anything like it.”
“You just had to say that, didn’t you?” she sighed and felt a pang of sadness, even though a small part of her was grateful that she wasn’t the only one missing their son.
He shrugged, then furrowed his brow. “We should make a quick stop and eat something. Either I’m really hungry or the mindbond is telling me that you are. Either way, I don’t intend to arrive in the city with a growling stomach, no matter whose it is.”
“Great,” Eryn muttered without any enthusiasm, “more pressed wood shavings.”
“Now, that’s not fair,” he grinned. “How would you know what wood shavings taste like? I assume you’ve never tried any, have you?”
“I have a pretty effective imagination,” she growled, displeased that he challenged what she considered an apt comparison.
“Good. Then you can just as easily close your eyes and imagine it’s something tasty instead of complaining.” He didn’t mention that his memory of Pirinkar cuisine was not exactly a favourable one. Destroying her hopes that considerably superior fare awaited her in the city would only serve to depress her even further.
The City of Kar
Enric brought his horse to a halt and dismounted with a slow and controlled movement. He knew that the city guards standing on the bridge with the purpose of denying entrance into their capital would not attack him just like that without any provocation. They would if he couldn’t present documents that confirmed that he was permitted to enter the city and refused to retreat.
Still, facing a greater number of potential opponents was a situation which warranted a display of respectful caution. Even though they very likely had no chance to prevail against Eryn and himself if push came to shove, it never paid to underestimate others. The five men in blue and grey uniforms with metal helmets and breast plates were holding their weapons in a way which was not exactly threatening as yet but with the promise that this could be changed at a moment’s notice.
“A stick with a spike on it,” Eryn commented under her breath, eyeing what looked to her like a curious combination of a farm instrument with a weapon. The expertise in fighting the Order had bestowed upon her despite her wishes drew her – almost without conscious choice – to study their arms.
In one hand each of them held a long, wooden stick longer than a grown man was tall with a pointy, irregularly shaped metal piece fixed to one end. Not an elegant weapon or one meant for engaging in fights. Its purpose was rather to keep people at a distance and provide a means to bar entrance by using the long handle as a barrier. Which didn’t mean that the spike on top couldn’t be used to cause considerable harm. Though probably not to a trained fighter armed with a sword.
But closer inspection of their uniforms revealed to her that they were each bearing one of those, too. Plus a knife in a sheath on their belts. They looked rather well-prepared for physical conflicts, no matter whether their opponents merely needed to be apprehended from afar, kept at bay at closer range with a sword or severely hurt from minimum distance with a knife. Assuming that the guards were trained in handling all the weapons they carried, they were probably not people to be challenged lightly.
Even so, Eryn seriously doubted that they could be much of a threat to her and Enric. At least not as long as she and her companion had magic at their disposal and the guards did not. From what she had heard and read about Pirinkar, men with magical abilities would not be trained as guards but instead be delivered to the temples without ever having access to any other profession than healing. Rather similar to the way all magicians in Anyueel were forced to join the Order, though this was considered a privilege and not at all a punishment.
A strange notion, thinking that what she had done all her life, what she had been training so many years despite all obstacles and difficulties, was in this country something of a stigma for being born a certain way. The same way she herself had been born.
Enric had in the meantime extracted their papers from a flat pouch inside his tunic and handed them to a man whose demeanour and slightly more adorned uniform suggested that he was in charge. The man took the papers without showing any sign of polite interest or friendliness, then stepped aside to reveal a trim woman in her mid-forties, her demeanour not much more welcoming than the guards’, though her eyes softened a fraction when she beheld Enric. Just as when they had first encountered each other several years ago, her light-brown hair was twisted into a tight bun at the back of her neck and her clothes were sober and prim. There were a few more grey strands visible now.
“Lam Ceiga, Reig of the Moraugns, minister of external affairs,” he smiled as he greeted her. “It is a pleasure to see you again. It seems that arriving in Kar will for me be forever connected to seeing your face.”
One corner of the woman’s mouth twitched slightly as if she were suppressing a dash of amusement while accepting the papers the guard was handing her. Or maybe she was merely pleased that he remembered her full name but did not wish to show it.
After scanning the first page, she looked up at Enric with one almost imperceptibly raised eyebrow.
“Lam Enric, Reig of House Aren, Second-in-Command of the Order. Lam. So you have educated yourself since your last stay here,” she commented without a greeting of any sort.
“I have. I studied the law,” Enric replied amiably.
Lam Ceiga returned to the papers in her hands. After several seconds she switched to the second page with Eryn’s details. When all information turned out to be in line with the documents she had received in advance, her eyes searched and found the second visitor.
Enric observed how her eyes widened slightly in shock as she took in Eryn. Her eyes flittered back to the papers in her hands as if to check the name on them once again.
“Gistor Maltheá, Reig of House Vel’kim, Explorer in Takhan?” she then asked as if to make sure that despite what her eyes insisted on, there was no error in her paperwork.
“Yes, that would be me,” Eryn nodded and got off her horse to stand next to her companion. She suppressed a shiver at how strange her own native language sounded out of this woman’s mouth. People in the Western Territories also sounded different from those in Anyueel, but they made the language sound rather more musical. People up north distorted it with the hard sounds that were so characteristic for the local language here.
“And yes, I resemble Malriel of House Aren to a degree which nobody finds more annoying than myself,” she added, when Lam Ceiga continued to stare at her.
This prompted the other woman to clear her throat and get a grip on herself.
“Forgive me, Gistor Maltheá, Reig of House Vel’kim, Explorer in Takhan. Your papers appear to be in order.” She motioned for the guards to step aside and admit the two people who were now officially guests rather than intruders. At least for the time being.
Eryn and Enric followed her into the city, all the while leading their horses. Either it was not considered a necessary course of action to relieve weary travellers of their horses, or it was being made clear to them that they were less than welcome here. Eryn fought a slight feeling of disappointment at not having been welcomed to Kar by Erbál. A genuine smile would have been a lot more appealing than this woman’s sombre demeanour.
“Your passes for moving around in the city were already issued,” Lam Ceiga explained without turning around while walking ahead of them in a brisk pace. “Lam Erbál, Legen of the Ferals, Ambassador to Kar, insisted on sparing you this piece of bureaucracy upon your arrival, and took it upon himself to arrange everything. The documents are currently in his custody.”
Eryn’s attention shifted from their guide towards her surroundings. The streets were made up of large, flat, square cobblestones which changed their patterns once smaller streets and alleys branched off what clearly was a main road. She was surprised at how clean the streets appeared, even though Enric had told her about that several years ago.
And then there were the buildings. Most of which were constructed in a curious design that consisted of a stone foundation about as tall as herself and then an oddly geometrical seeming array of timber with the spaces in-between, filled with some other building material, that had then been painted in a hue ranging from white to darker earthen shades. They were between two and four storeys high.
As if to counter the strangely correct and organised feel of this place with its orderly houses and sombrely dressed people, most windows sported what had to be planting boxes from which grew an assortment of plants bearing brightly coloured flowers. No herbs for cooking or medicine; the plants were for mere decorative purposes, as far as Eryn could tell.
The people’s external appearance also seemed strangely uniform as she studied their clothes. Not so, however, when it came to their skin and hair colour. Eryn marvelled at this diversity that was so incredibly different from the two countries she knew and lived in. In Anyueel, the streets were dominated by blond people, even though this would be changing in the years to come now that darker hair colours were returning along with the force of magic in women. And in the Western Territories people had dark hair and were tanned by the relentless desert sun.
Neither Enric with his fair hair and comparatively pale skin, nor Eryn with her dark hair and only slightly darker skin were out of place here. She was relieved that nobody really seemed to be paying them much attention. Enric had made sure to pack clothes that would not stand out in a place where flowers seemed to be the only living things where bright colours were encouraged or at least tolerated.
“Move on,” Enric instructed her quietly. “You can look around later once we are settled in our accommodation. If we lose her, we’ll get in trouble without the passes that grant us our certain freedom to move around unsupervised. Or at least as unsupervised as we will ever be here.”
Eryn nodded and increased her pace slightly. He was right. Lam Ceiga didn’t seem to care much whether or not they managed to keep up with her and could probably not be bothered to turn around and look for them in case they got lost.
Several minutes later they arrived in front of a building three storeys high consisting entirely of light brown stone. It looked elegant and affluent, but in a somewhat strange way.
There were three different sizes of windows, though all of them had square bottoms and curved upwards into an arc like little city gates. The house was not symmetrical – one half of the facade protruded further than the other and had something resembling half a cylinder stretching upwards over the length of one floor attached to the outer wall. It appeared as if somebody had belatedly decided to enlarge the available space inside by adding a section on one floor. The odd structure was decorated with elaborate stone carvings and columns which framed the same type of half square, half rounded windows that could be found around it.
Lam Ceiga didn’t grant them much time to take in their destination, but knocked upon the heavily decorated wooden door with its wrought iron centre consisting of floral ornaments framed with partly gilded and partly plain wooden carvings.
This was obviously a better part of the city with more prosperous inhabitants, Eryn guessed. At least as far as she could tell if she compared the buildings around here with those she had seen upon entering the city. And Erbál was important enough to have been granted a place here. Good. That would without a doubt be useful for their mission here. It implied that he was maintaining influential connections used to a certain luxuriousness when it came to their surroundings.
The door opened, and Eryn had to look twice to make sure this really and truly was her friend Erbál before her. Whatever had they done to him? He looked just like one of them!
* * *
They followed the Ambassador up a stairway with an intricately carved wooden handrail on one side.
Enric saw how Eryn stared at Erbál’s back, still aghast because of his massively altered appearance. He could comprehend her bewilderment, shared it even to a certain degree, even though he knew that it was only logical and advisable for a diplomat to adapt to his country of residence enough to fit in. It was meant to make those around him more comfortable. And therefore less wary.
He had seen Erbál in less flamboyant attire than that customary at his birth place before. He had already adapted to local customs after having been dispatched to Anyueel several years ago, yet doing the same here in Pirinkar obviously required taking it down another notch. His hair, in addition to being bound in his neck, was smoothed back with what appeared to be some kind of oil, making it look sleek and taming every single dark strand that might otherwise have tried to escape. His legs were stuck in tight trousers, outlining his thighs and calves. It was probably only the longish shirt and jacket he was wearing which prevented the whole attire from leaving less to the imagination than was considered decent. Both at the front and behind.
And of course every single item he was wearing adhered to the colour range which was considered adequate for people of notable – as well as any other – rank during the day: black, brown and white.
They arrived on the first floor, where a room so overloaded with curly carvings on furniture, brightly patterned fabrics and an impossible number of fragile looking ornaments on almost every even surface awaited them. It was as though the inside of the house was trying to make up for the locals’ sombre demeanour.
Eryn, who had been about to utter something, very likely a snide remark about Erbál’s appearance, stood there with her mouth agape. Her eyes were rapidly darting from one spot to the next as if unable to decide what to take in first.
Enric gulped and took an involuntary step back, almost slipping on the top stair. His mind was desperately searching for a quiet, unadorned spot which would allow his eyes to rest for a moment without being tormented by this avalanche of colours, patterns and shapes.
“It is quite an assault on the senses if one is not used to it,” the Ambassador said with an apologetic smile and stepped towards Eryn to envelop her with his arms in the greeting he was not supposed to perform outside the privacy of his abode.
“Definitely,” Eryn agreed weakly and reciprocated by hugging him close.
Several seconds later Erbál released her and instead took her hands in his. Squeezing them affectionately, he exhaled. “I am so very glad you are here.” Then he greeted Enric in a rather more formal manner, before suggesting, “I will show you the house and give you half an hour to settle in. Then I would like to take you on a walk.”
“A walk?” Eryn asked without much enthusiasm. Somehow the idea of walking around was so much less appealing than the thought of just leaning back and enjoying a glass of something delectable after their long journey. When she saw Enric nod tiredly, she could tell that he shared that sentiment. The fact that he didn’t object had nothing to do with mere politeness, she knew. It had to mean that Erbál had to have a good reason for insisting on that walk.
“You and your plain appearance are quite a contrast to this… rich plentitude in here”, Eryn commented. “I don’t like what you did to your hair.” She touched her own. “We are not expected to do that as well, are we?” She briefly touched his head and grimaced when her fingers came away greasy.
“No, there is no need for that. Especially not for women,” Erbál reassured her. “And even if you wished to smooth down your hair, magicians do have more convenient means to accomplish this without employing substances of any kind.”
“Is this the usual style of a main room in Pirinkar?” Enric enquired. “It’s a far cry from what I saw when I came here several years ago. But then your abode is certainly far superior to the place where Vran’el and I were put up in. We were not exactly treated as welcome guests but instead as intruders back then.” He gingerly touched a pale porcelain figurine of a young girl dancing, curious about how smooth and cool it felt under his finger.
“In more… affluent circles it is the common style, yes. Here it is all about shaping your private place, your home, in a manner that you yourself find appealing yet also in a way that is meant to impress guests with your exquisite taste and of course your wealth. Since they do not really have places like the music and tea houses we have in Takhan, their need for social contacts is mostly fulfilled in their homes. Pirinkar is rather more similar to Anyueel in this regard. Public houses are considered places for lower classes and drunkards while the noble society gathers in private homes.”
Eryn’s eyes narrowed for a moment as she tried to detect any judgement or implication of snobbishness behind that statement. She couldn’t find any and began to wonder whether she was projecting her own feelings. He was right, after all. Sitting together with friends, chatting in the evening after sunset over a nice glass of tea or dining at a music house was something she missed dearly whenever they stayed in the Kingdom.
Enric tried to push away the rather disquieting thought of what their bedroom might look like. As stuffed with useless, fragile dust collectors and richly adorned with colourfully patterned fabrics as this room here? Would he be able to fall asleep in such a place? Even with the lights out he would still know that they were lurking in the darkness as if biding their time until sunrise when they would once again trouble his senses with detail.
“I would suggest you let me show you to your room now, then refresh yourselves a little before our walk,” Erbál proposed, and lifted a hand to indicate another staircase to the left of the one they had just climbed. “The servants will fetch your luggage in the course of the next few minutes so you may wash and change into clean clothes. The cook has prepared a light snack for you afterwards in order to bridge the time until we take our evening meal.”
Enric’s polite smile hid his lack of enthusiasm well. He could only hope that wealthy people did not only enjoy more comfortable accommodation here, but also more delectable food than the fare he remembered.
* * *
Enric sighed with relief when Erbál opened the door to their room and then stepped aside to let them enter. It was a lot less cluttered with items of unending assortments than he had feared. He could see a similar sentiment reflected on Eryn’s face as she stepped inside and looked around. But it took only a moment until the relief about the frugal decorations turned into disenchantment. Somehow the only options here seemed to be either hopelessly cluttered or plain and even depressingly bleak. Moving from one to the other in a matter of seconds was quite a massive contrast to a mind that still was trying to adapt to its new surroundings.
It was anything but a capacious room as though dedicating too much space to a place where one probably wasn’t supposed to linger longer than absolutely necessary were considered frivolous. Compared to the splendour of the other rooms they had seen – the ones guests would catch sight of – this chamber was not merely modest, but bordered on the austere.
“Let me guess,” he uttered dryly, “people here consider rising early a virtue.”
Erbál laughed. “They really do. Furnishing their bedchambers this way is meant to make getting up in the morning less of a struggle.”
Eryn took a seat on the mattress and testingly bounced up and down a few times. Or at least she tried to. There wasn’t much bounciness. That certainly didn’t invite to lie there any longer than was absolutely necessary.
Her expression wasn’t a joyful one when she sighed, “That I quite believe. This bed is about as comfortable as a horse stable floor. Less so, probably.”
“It certainly does not poke as much as a stack of hay,” countered Erbál as if eager to present it all in a less depressing light. “And there are no fleas in here.”
“Oh, small joy…” Eryn muttered.
She felt about as exhausted as Enric looked. As long as that distant and unfriendly woman had been with them, he had made the effort to hide it, but now the mask had fallen and revealed a weary traveller who would much rather lie down than embark on a walk around the city with their host.
“I shall await you in the parlour for when you are ready”, Erbál informed them and then closed the door behind him.
Enric sank onto the bed right next to her. There was an ominous, drawn-out creak. They froze and exchanged a slightly troubled look as if expecting the bed to fall to pieces any moment.
“They might give us a nicer one if we break this one,” Eryn tried to make light of the situation.
“Or they might just patch this one here back together,” replied Enric and carefully leaned back until he lay flat with his feet still on the floor. “It’s about as comfortable as it looks.”
“Not at all?”
Eryn snuggled up to him, bedding her head on his shoulder. “So far I’m not particularly taken with this place. What’s with that woman? Are they all like this or is she just miffed about our presence here?”
She felt how his chest quivered with his chuckle.
“Actually, Lam Ceiga was more welcoming this time. Consider that this here is a culture where people are immensely formal with each other even if they are well acquainted. In addition, they are wary about strangers.”
“Meaning we will enjoy an increased dose of their suspicion and be given the cold shoulder on principle,” she sighed. “I thought coming here would be easier. I already adapted to a different new culture once, after all.”
Enric hugged her closer and pressed a kiss on her forehead. “Don’t worry for now. This is just the first shock at finding everything so different from what you know. In some aspects they are actually quite similar to Anyueel. There is no haggling if you want to buy something, for one.”
Since Eryn had no great plans to indulge in extensive shopping sprees and would therefore not benefit so much from this, she merely shrugged.
“We ought to get ourselves ready”, she murmured, noting how her voice sounded more sluggish now that her body had relaxed in a horizontal position. If they didn’t get up soon, she would fall asleep here, no matter how uncomfortable the bed was.
“We should,” Enric agreed without moving as if waiting for her to rise first.
A knock sounded at their door, so both struggled their way back to an upright position, laboriously overcoming the heaviness in their limbs.
Eryn opened the door and admitted the two servants who brought their belongings, just as Erbál had promised.
As soon as they had left again, Eryn opened one bag and pulled out a clean set of clothes for each of them.
“I suppose now that our things are here and we can get changed, we have no more excuse for being lazy.” She tossed his clothes at him. “I’ll go first.” She stepped towards a second door. “Might that be a bathroom? What do you think?” Without waiting for his answer, she opened it and whistled through her teeth. Finally a nice surprise. “Look at that! We truly have a bathroom right here – just for us, no sharing. And a large one too! It’s easily as big as the bedroom! They obviously set greater store by cleanliness than by a comfortable night’s rest.”
Mesmerised, Eryn’s eyes first focused on the huge, white gleaming bathtub in the centre of the room, then followed the copper pipes along the walls. There was a rather dainty looking contraption which was very likely where the water was supposed to come out of. This looked nothing like the water pump in her own bathroom in Anyueel which suddenly appeared crude and outdated in comparison to all this here.
Stepping closer to the bathtub, she took a closer look. The little device on top was connected to the copper pipes and would very likely start spouting water if she turned one of the two porcelain knobs on either side of the opening. On each of them a word in the local language was embossed. Eryn leaned closer to decipher them. They were rather basic ones. Warm and cold, she recognised, thrilled that for the very first time since she had started her language studies several years ago, she was actually able to apply that knowledge outside a book.
Her brow creased. Warm and cold. What was that supposed to mean? Water was by nature cold. It had to be heated either by magic or by means of a fire. She looked around. Neither in the bedroom nor in here had she seen a fireplace that would enable servants to heat water without having to drag it here from who knows where. Was it maybe hidden out of sight? She looked around for some panel or extra door which might hide some recess, but found nothing at first glance. With a shrug she returned her attention to the bathtub and decided to stop pondering when experimenting was so much more appealing.
Slowly she turned the knob marked with warm and heard a quiet gurgling, before water started streaming from the opening. Eryn blinked. Without pumping, it just flowed out of this metal outlet and landed burbling in the sparkling white tub. And disappeared again through a round hole. Eryn found a plug lying on a little side table. Its size and shape suggested that it was meant to close the hole. She bent down to do just that and froze when the water touched her skin. It was warm! And it seemed to get a little hotter with every moment! How was this possible?
“Enric?” she called out, all fatigue suddenly gone from her voice. “Come and have a look at this! It’s marvellous!”
* * *
“You certainly took your time,” Erbál commented when they were walking along the street that led away from his home and seat of office. There was a hint of reproach as if he had been eager to embark on this walk with people he could in the widest sense consider his countrymen.
“Eryn discovered the bathroom,” Enric remarked. “There was no getting her out of it.”
“So you took a bath?” the ambassador asked, his voice now amused.
Enric gave a rather undignified snort, before Eryn had a chance to reply. “That would have taken a lot less time, I imagine. No, she discovered that your pipes spout hot water and had to investigate. Explorer and all that.”
Erbál smiled. “Ah, that was quite a discovery for me as well when I first came here. The first surprise was that they add their bathrooms to the bedrooms directly, so each inhabitant has their own. Having to share a bathroom is considered somewhat of an imposition. At least in wealthier abodes. And then there was the hot water issued without any discernible effort from the servants. It seemed like a miracle.”
“So, how is it done?” Eryn enquired impatiently. “The water must be heated somewhere. Maybe somewhere under the roof? That would explain how the water shoots out of the pipes like that – because the weight pushes it downwards and out of every available outlet. But then you would require rather large containers for the water since I assume that they hold more than just enough to fill one bathtub. That would mean considerable strain on the house’s structure,” she continued what was no longer a conversation but had rather turned into a soliloquy. “And one would certainly need more than one container since the hot water would need to be stored separately. Yet it cannot be stored for too long or it would cool down again. Meaning there is either somebody to constantly keep the water at a certain temperature so it’s available without prior notice, or it is stored in a way where the heat is preserved – however such a thing might be accomplished. That still leaves…”
“Stop!” Erbál interrupted her with a laugh. “You are making me dizzy! I can tell you a few basic things, yet if you wish to learn more about it I will ask the man who does the maintenance work to explain it all to you in more detail, alright?”
She nodded eagerly.
They continued on their way wherever Erbál was taking them. Eryn did not pay any attention to the unfamiliar streets, buildings, shops and people around her but was completely focused on what Erbál knew about this incredible system that could supply actual hot water on demand at any time.
“There are indeed water tanks for hot and cold, yet not on the roof, but in the cellars. You are right – the weight would otherwise pose a serious danger to the buildings’ structural integrity.”
“But how can it come out of the pipes with such a speed when it’s stored downstairs?” she demanded impatiently. When she had to pump water up from somewhere, it emerged a lot more sluggishly – even if she used magic to increase her strength.
“It is done with pressure. Instead of relying on the water’s weight by storing it in higher altitude, they use pumps to create pressure inside the storage vessel. Whenever you turn a knob in your bathroom and open a valve, you provide an exit for the compressed water, which then jets out.”
Eryn took a few moments to take this in, the cogwheels in her head turning busily as she tried to imagine what it all had to look like.
“How large are those tanks? How often are they refilled? And how is that done? How is the hot water heated? And how often? How long does that normally take? Where does the drain in the bathtub lead? How many rooms can open the valves at the same time and still get water? Can I take a bath at the same time as you? How exactly is the pressure in the tanks created?” she bombarded Erbál with questions.
He lifted both his hands in a placating manner. “Slow down, my dear. I fear you are asking more questions than I can answer. I will contact the man I mentioned before and ask him to take a little extra time when next he comes. That should be around next week.”
Eryn nodded reluctantly. Patience had never been one of her strong sides, and having to wait for a week for answers she longed for right now was attritional.
She finally made an effort to take in her surroundings so as to divert herself from the conundrum of the hot water. It seemed they were walking through some kind of craftsmen’s quarter – provided they really had a quarter and weren’t instead spread throughout the city.
She marvelled at what looked like decorative wrought-iron ornaments affixed to the buildings’ facades above the entries to workshops and stores.
“These must be store signs,” she assumed.
Erbál followed her gaze and looked up. “They are a little more than that. These are guild symbols. They indicate what kind of profession the owner of the shop pursues.” He pointed ahead to black metal that was twisted and coiled until it resembled a climbing plant instead of iron. It was adorned with shiny, gold-coloured leaves. “Do you see the symbol amidst it all? The pair of scissors around which a lock of hair is curled? This is a hairdresser. Whenever you see such a symbol, you immediately know which kind of business this is.”
“So all of them have the exact same sign above their door?” Eryn asked.
“Not the exact same. The symbol itself is always the same for each profession, yet the decorative aspect and size vary in accordance with the owners’ taste – and how much they are willing or able to spend. The amount of gold you see usually shows how well things are going. Some of them only use the symbol, others also add their names. That would be mostly public houses and also long-established craftspeople whose name is known near and far.”
“So I can assume that seeing a guild symbol with a name underneath means the owner has a very good reputation and provides superb quality – which probably means exorbitant prices?” Eryn smiled.
Erbál shrugged. “Yes, that is a valid assumption. Which does not mean that shops without a name on their guild symbol always offer moderate prices. It generally pays to compare different suppliers when you intend to purchase an expensive article.”
Enric listened intently. He hadn’t had much time or inclination to really learn about this place during his last visit. That was somehow a shame. Yet his priorities had been very different at that time – saving Malriel from a possible death sentence and returning home to his companion and newly born son. He and Vran’el had spent quite a few days here waiting for papers to be issued and requests to be granted, but had been told not to leave their uninviting and penurious accommodations.
“Another hairdresser,” Eryn uttered once she found a similar sign.
“No, not quite. The scissors are atop a bale of cloth this time, meaning this is a tailor”, Erbál explained.
They continued on their way, and Erbál showed her the symbols the different craftspeople used. A bunch of grapes over a glass for wine sellers, two intertwining flowers for herbalists, a tree trunk and hammer for carpenters, two crossed keys for locksmiths, a pair of shoes for cobblers, and so on.
After several minutes they reached what looked like a jetty that extended out into the lake that half surrounded the city. So they had walked to the edge of Kar.
Eryn and Enric followed the ambassador, who walked down a few steps towards the water, where a couple of small boats were moored to the long wooden pier.
Erbál exchanged a few words with a man in a small booth, handed him a couple of coins and then motioned for his guests to follow him.
“We don’t have to get into on of those… things?” Eryn asked with little hope. She had only just got used to ships, and in their case there was a lot more substance between her and the water than with these nutshells. It couldn’t take much for one to just flip over if somebody made a wrong move.
“Afraid so,” her companion replied and took her hand in his to make sure she came along.
“I’m not going to do any rowing, just so you know,” she growled and let Erbál take her hand to help her climb rather unsteadily into the vessel he had selected.
When they were all in the boat, Erbál loosened the tethering line and pushed the boat away from the pier with one oar, which he then handed Enric. Since the ambassador was the only non-magician present, he would certainly not take care of the physical labour of rowing.
Without objection Enric accepted the task and propelled the boat ahead with every powerful stroke. Nobody spoke until the city had shrunk in the distance and Erbál lifted a hand to indicate that they were now far enough away from the shore to be truly out of range of any intrusive eyes or ears.
* * *
“Unfortunately, the ability to read someone’s lips is quite common here,” Erbál explained his decision to take them to a place where it was impossible to approach them unseen while the boat was bobbing gently in the centre of the extensive lake. He nodded at Eryn. “An ability, I believe, you have mastered as well.”
“I have,” she retorted a little miffed. “But I did certainly not have in mind that it might be a splendid way to spy on people but I did it for healing purposes.”
“Of course,” Erbál replied and smiled. “I would not have assumed anything else. Here, however, people do not have your noble intentions when they seek to acquire this very skill. Since magicians are considered a potential danger, reading lips is considered a handy means of overcoming their ability to raise soundproof barriers. Provided, one is able to get close enough. You would not believe how riddled with spy holes the buildings here are.”
“Yet coming out here like this will also make people wonder,” Eryn noted. “It is pretty obvious that you didn’t take us out here to spend a pleasant, relaxing afternoon.”
He waved her off. “Of course they will. And they expected it. It would probably have surprised them no end if I had not taken you to a place where there are no unwelcome eyes or ears around.”
“How widely known is the purpose of our journey here?” Enric wanted to know. “Is there any pretence we ought to keep up?”
“The higher echelons know that there were plans to assassinate the Queen of Anyueel, and that the trail leads to Pirinkar. I cannot really tell how far down this has been spread. In our own interest I hope that a fair number of people know about it already. Otherwise we will have a lot of curious visitors in the days to come. People here are nosy. And not being told something is no cause for them to accept that they are not supposed to know about it.”
“Well, that sounds familiar…” murmured Eryn, who hated spies with a passion.
“Does anyone here know that you were the one to provide us with the warning about the impending attempt on the Queen’s life?” Enric asked.
“I certainly hope not. It would paint a target on my back.”
“How did you find out about it?” he asked.
“By way of an anonymous letter delivered to my residence.”
Eryn’s brow rose. She had expected it to have been the result of months of careful sleuthing rather than a happy coincidence as long as careful, thorough Erbál was involved. So the timely warning had been nothing but good luck. Somehow that was not comforting. It meant those person or persons responsible had been able to keep it well enough hidden for Erbál not to find out on his own.
“That means at least one person – the originator of the letter – knows that our presence here is the result of a warning you sent instead of our investigative prowess back in Anyueel,” Enric mused.
“Very true,” the ambassador confirmed. “So far I have not been able to find out the identity of my gracious information provider.”
“Are there any people here who you can trust?” Eryn enquired.
Erbál laughed. “Dear me, no! I did strike up friendships here, yet I know better than to trust any of them. In a position such as my current one you can never be sure why somebody wishes to be close to you.”
Eryn felt slightly abashed at having demonstrated her naiveté like that. Yet she certainly did not wish to possess Erbál’s artfulness, to be forced to apply it on an everyday basis just to survive. For him friendships were not a source of joy, but a way of keeping potential enemies close and harvesting sources of information. That sounded incredibly lonely, and she wanted no part of it.
“What exactly is our take on the events so far?” she asked. “We assume that someone in Pirinkar wishes to remove the combined threat the alliance between Anyueel and the Western Territories presents to them in case of a war. The assassination of the Queen would have served two purposes – firstly, it would have severed the tighter bond the King wants to establish between our countries, and secondly, it was supposed to look as though the Western Territories had arranged it. And implicating my father in his influential position as Head of Healers and spouse of a Triarch might have done the trick. Even if the King hadn’t fallen for it, the majority of his people would have.”
“I would say that summarises it fairly well,” Erbál nodded.
“So what was the motivation of whoever sent you the message?” she continued her train of thought. “Either the person wishes to avoid a war by weakening their own country’s position enough to think twice before entering into one, or they want to lose it.”
“There is a third possibility,” Enric added. “The result of all that has happened since Erbál received the warning is our presence here.”
Eryn frowned. “You mean it could all have been an elaborate plot to lure us here? Why?”
“I don’t have the slightest idea. Yet we need to consider the chance that all this might be going exactly according to somebody’s plan. Maybe somebody truly wishes to start a war, and assassinating us on a mission of peace would be a sure way to start one.”
She gulped, suddenly feeling even more vulnerable than before. “Wouldn’t killing Erbál have accomplished that? I mean, how much more clearly can you start a war than by killing the diplomat somebody sent you? And killing the two of us would certainly unite our two countries against Pirinkar and make a victory less likely.”
“As I said, I have no idea whether or not this is the case. I merely say we should not discard the likelihood.”
“You are right,” Erbál agreed. “It was not hard to guess who they would send once the necessity to dispatch someone to Kar arose. Enric was already here once and has gained at least some insight, and Eryn, you are known to have received materials for language studies. The fact that you two are committed to each other makes you the most likely people to be sent here. But even though we should bear all this in mind when searching for what really is happening, it is certainly too early to favour one option above others.”
Enric agreed, even though he didn’t take well to blindly feeling for a way forward in a place he wasn’t familiar with. “Where do you suggest we start our investigations?”
“There will be an official event tomorrow evening to welcome the two of you to Kar. I will introduce you to some of the more influential people here. Maybe this will provide some inspiration. And then I would suggest getting in contact with the magicians – or priests, as they are referred to here.”
“How eager will the high and mighty here be to make our acquaintance tomorrow?” Eryn asked with a feeling of dread. “Apart from the fact that we were sent by a country which many of them distrust, they also spurn or at least ignore magicians.”
“That is true,” Erbál admitted without hesitation. “Yet they also welcome everything that provides variety. You are an unknown combination of circumstances. You are influential politicians and possess considerable wealth – something they respect. Nonetheless, you are magicians, which is considered a lower class of people here. In which direction the scales tip will very much depend on how you present yourselves tomorrow.”
“No obvious reminders of our much-despised flaw,” Eryn repeated what she had already discussed with Enric.
“Exactly. Behave in a manner that will make it easy for people to decide which category to put you in – the one of foreign nobility. This will also mean demonstrating your superiority over me in public.”
Eryn grimaced. “What?”
“You are more important than I, and our interactions need to reflect that,” he explained. “Since magicians are not normally treated with reverence, seeing me treat you as my better will help convey the message that you must be met at eye-level.” He smiled at Eryn. “I know that this is contrary to all you believe – pretending to be someone you are not and treating people as inferior. Yet in this case it will serve our purposes nicely. If people know one thing but repeatedly see another with their own eyes, they begin to believe what they see. It is an aspect of human nature. One we can use to our advantage.”
“I’m not good at lying and pretending,” Eryn replied, her demeanour becoming resigned. “Particularly, when it means disparaging my friends.”
“I know. Yet this is a role you need to grow into, and fast.” Erbál took her hand and squeezed it. “The locals need to graciously forgive you for being magicians by deciding that you have a lot more in common with them than with the priests. Priests can never look down on a non-magician, so this is a powerful way of creating a contrast here.”
“Meaning the priests won’t accept us either, since we theoretically are magicians, but don’t look the part,” Eryn argued.
“That remains to be seen. Since priests are taught from an early age on that they are of lesser value, some of them might admire you for being accepted into non-magician society,” the ambassador countered. “But let us focus on one thing at a time at the beginning.”
It’s easy for you to talk, Eryn thought, you haven’t left your child in another country and are missing him so much it pains you. Taking time to consider one thing after the other was not something that sounded particularly appealing to her. There was this inner urge pushing her to hurry, disregarding the fact that they needed to act with great consideration and avoid rushing anything. The consequences might be disastrous for all three countries. But still…
Enric felt how Eryn next to him in the horse carriage was edgy with nervous energy. Part of it was very likely owing to the briefing Erbál had subjected them to. It had consisted of a list of people they were almost certain to encounter on this formal get-together on the occasion of their arrival. With the full name of each and every one of them. All in all it taken them several hours to commit their details to memory. This had actually been how they had spent their first day after their arrival in Kar – memorising a never-ending stream of names in a style so unfamiliar that their brains had little to connect them to.
This evening would now be something of a final test and reveal how reliable their memories were. Addressing a person with the wrong name or even using an erroneous variation of the correct one was a major insult they must be at pains to avoid. It would make their quest of impressing the locals with their elegance, flair and importance so much tougher.
Enric would much rather have used the time to make plans, get to know the layout of the streets better or familiarise himself with the culture, but Erbál had insisted that this list of names took precedence over anything else. Eryn had also been disgruntled at having to spend the day indoors with sheets of paper with names and titles to study that had next to no meaning for her as long as she had no faces to connect them with.
Eryn pulled at her dress in a feeble attempt to cover more of her cleavage. The dress. Her second reason for being uncomfortable and fidgeting around. It had taken two servants to help her into it – a procedure Enric had not observed but only overheard from the adjoining room. It had sounded excruciating. It was probably a good thing that the women hadn’t understood the curses Eryn had spouted. Erbál next to him had looked as though he were dreading the moment when Eryn would emerge from this room after the torments she apparently had to endure.
It had taken almost an hour to convince her to wear it. Initially she had insisted on donning one of the few formal gowns she had brought along, but Erbál had repeatedly explained to her that she would stand out too much. They needed to blend in, and that entailed dressing like the locals. Eryn had argued that she would burst the illusion of being one of them as soon as she opened her mouth – either to talk in a language foreign to the people here or stuttering her way through their native tongue. Erbál had remained adamant and explained that this was one more reason to ensure that her physical appearance countered rather than reinforced that effect of foreignness. He had already taken the liberty of ordering clothes for her and Enric prior to their arrival, so they merely needed to be adapted for a perfect fit.
“How do the women here manage to breathe in these dresses?” Eryn pressed out. “I’m dizzy. This is so tight I can’t get enough air into my lungs! If I have to move around too much, I’ll be in danger of passing out!”
Erbál nodded sympathetically. “I know – I do not envy you in the least. It is a dreadful kind of fashion. It was initially established to keep women from moving around very much and turning them into the kind of helpless creatures less self-assured men wish to have around them, so as not to feel threatened in their perceived manliness. You may not believe this, but the dresses are not nearly as constraining as they used to be about one hundred years ago.”
Eryn stared at him in utter horror. This apparel of torture she was wearing was a moderate version?
“Yet they still have some work ahead of them. They are still not in favour of considering women their equals, if you ask me,” she growled.
“Neither is Anyueel, for that matter,” Enric threw in. “Women gain importance in society exclusively through their companion’s influence. And there is next to no chance for them to rise to a position of political power. You are the only exception, and this was only due to your considerable magical powers. The Western Territories are far ahead of us in that respect.”
“Yes, because they’ve always had magically gifted women,” Eryn muttered. “Yet they have their own problems – such as considering non-magicians second-class humans.”
Erbál smiled faintly at that. “I admit that is true. Though in our defence I need to add that we do not treat them the way Pirinkar treats their magicians – as though they were abominable beings who need to be kept more or less locked up behind temple walls.”
“So we agree that of all three countries Pirinkar is the one with the least consideration for people who do not represent what is considered ideal,” Eryn sighed. “That would offer me some comfort, if I weren’t the only one of us to be stuck in this atrocious item of clothing. Or rather items. Do you have any idea how many parts this grisly composition consists of? I think I lost count somewhere. One of the pieces was just to squeeze my waist! It took two people to close it! Can you imagine how much my inner organs are being squeezed up? This is not healthy, not at all! I can hardly even sit! What kind of beauty ideal is that supposed to support, anyway? The illusion that women were built in a way which allows two male hands to encompass her waist?”
Erbál thought for a moment, then shrugged. “I know you just said that in spite, yet I think this might actually not be too far from the truth. A small waist makes women look more fragile, and this is how they are supposed to perceive themselves, after all.”
“I haven’t seen a lot from this place nor have I met many people, yet I am already not taking to it,” she growled. “How long is this facile event tonight supposed to take? Will we be out there again in an hour or two or is it such a seemingly never-ending affair like a Royal ball at home?”
“It is considered an insult if you leave after a mere two or three hours without providing proof of a genuine emergency to redeem yourself,” the ambassador informed her.
Eryn suppressed a pained groan. That was exactly what she had feared. “This is a nightmare! How am I supposed to remember all these names, be civil to people and measure my every word to avoid disclosing any hints that we are magicians, when my brain is insufficiently supplied with urgently needed oxygen?”
Erbál let out his breath and looked at Enric. “Is there a realistic chance she will behave?”
Enric’s expression was doubtful as his eyes wandered over the dress. “For several hours while she is stuck in that thing? Honestly, it would surprise me.”
Several seconds of silence ensued, the rattling of coach wheels on cobblestones and the clapping of horse shoes the only sounds to be heard.
Erbál nodded slowly and pursed his lips. “Very well, I will approach the hostess and ask her to send down two of her waiting maids to loosen the strings at the back a little so you may breathe a little more easily.”
Eryn’s smile of relief was heartfelt. She made to lean forward and take his hand to squeeze it, but found that she couldn’t tilt her upper body far enough for that. A determined glint entered her eyes.
“Never again will I let you put me into anything like this! I’ll call upon that tailor of yours to have a little chat about how we can have a formal dress in the local style which will not suffocate me.”
Defeated, Erbál nodded. “I suppose this is as much of a compromise as I can expect. I will accompany you. His foreign language skills might otherwise not be up to dealing with your wishes.”
Eryn smiled grimly. “You know what was missing in my own language instructions? Curse words. You should teach me some. I have the feeling they will come in handy. They already would have, actually.”
He snorted. “I might consider that should I ever need a sure-fire way to escalate a crisis into a war. But certainly not before.” He looked outside the coach window as the coach came to a standstill. “We have arrived.”
* * *
Eryn took a testing breath and released it again. Then she smiled. That was more like it. Now she was not dizzy on the verge of passing out any more after the two very silent maids Erbál had organised for her had loosened the lacing a little of that abominable affair into which her upper body was stuffed.
She stepped outside the small cloak room and accepted Enric’s arm. Erbál walked ahead and handed a menacing looking man with considerably more frills than any person should wear a folded card with artfully trimmed edges. Very likely the official invitation to prove that they had permission to enter the lavish area that opened up directly behind the servant. It was something like an anteroom: two storeys high, with two luxurious, wide, perfectly symmetric curved stone stairways with intricate black wrought-iron handrails to one side. They started at either side of the room’s centre and met one floor above on the same platform, from which an ornate double door opened into what was probably where the guests were received. The platform was held by a number of artily embellished columns which were apparently crafted from the same bright stone streaked with subtle veins in a slightly darker shade than was used for the stairs. Between the columns underneath the platform several closed doors could be seen.
While the servant scrutinised first the invitation, then the three guests, Eryn stood watching three women being led by men ascend the stairways. They were clad in equally ridiculous monstrosities of dresses like her own. Junar could probably make three dresses out of the fabric that went into creating just this one. The men looked even more similar in appearance than the women. Every single one of them sported a dark, collarless jacket of some heavy fabric, into which curly patterns had been woven. It reached down to their knees. Underneath they wore a kind of buttoned vest of a less severe colour, and underneath that was a white shirt with long, sheer ruffles at the neck and wrists. Much too over-decorated and effeminate for Eryn’s taste. The trousers looked simple enough in comparison, but for some reason they reached down no further than the knees, just like the overcoat. Their calves were shown off by some bright, clingy material.
And to complete the picture, they all had their hair smoothed back with that same oil she had seen on Erbál. Apart from Enric, who did it with magic.
She looked up at her companion. She had always found him to be a good-looking fellow – well, at least after her hatred had no longer blinded her to his physical merits. But even he looked ridiculous in these clothes. On the one hand she felt glee that not even marvellous, impressive Lord Enric could make ruffles look good, while on the other she was downhearted at having him dressed like this.
Vedric would break out in laughter, could he see his father in his current attire. That thought made her smile, though it also gave her a pang of longing.
Erbál motioned for them to climb the stairs to the platform ahead of them to indicate that their standing was higher than his own. Eryn lifted her chin, took Enric’s arm and undertook the toil of taking herself and the considerable weight of all the fabric upstairs.
Reaching the top, they beheld the extensive room, laden with ornamented columns, mirrors, golden trimmings and a floor in a dizzying multi-coloured pattern. Next to the door stood three people, a man and a woman who might or might not be in their early fifties, and a younger man whose smile resembled a mask rather than an expression of genuine delight.
“The hostess and host,” Erbál whispered behind them almost without moving his lips. “And their eldest son.”
Enric wouldn’t have needed this little reminder. He had recognised the hostess’ name from the guest list Erbál had provided. She was one of the three judges who had presided over Malriel’s trial six years ago. The one thing he remembered most distinctly about her was her monotonous voice, which had sounded as though her profession had over a few decades sucked her dry of all life.
He stopped before them and nodded his head in greeting before saying, “Gistor Noraske, Legen of the Weisens, First level judge of Pirinkar, it is my honour to meet you again.”
The judge looked at him for a long time, her brow slightly raised, while her gaze took in his slightly familiar appearance combined with the very familiar style of sartorial elegance among members of the local higher class.
“The honour is all mine, Lam Enric, Reig of House Aren, Second-in-Command of the Order,” the judge replied amiably with a slight accent – in a voice less deprived of modulation than Enric remembered. Maybe she kept it inexpressive only for professional purposes.
Then her gaze moved to Eryn, and her breath caught for a moment. Eryn waited patiently until the woman had recovered from the shock of the surprising resemblance to the woman who had been the accused party in her courtroom.
“I may introduce to you my companion, Gistor Maltheá, Reig of House Vel’kim, Explorer in Takhan,” Enric said as though he hadn’t noticed. “Maltheá, meet Gistor Noraske, Legen of the Weisens, First level judge of Pirinkar.”
“I… yes… of course. Be welcome to our modest gathering in your honour, Gistor Maltheá, Reig of House Vel’kim, Explorer in Takhan,” Gistor Noraske finally managed to utter. Then she introduced her own companion and her son, whose names Eryn already was aware of from the list.
Then Erbál was greeted, and they all moved on into the room that seemed to consist of little more than shiny surfaces of different sorts and dainty ornaments in different sizes surrounding and embellishing all and any architectural structure such as doors, windows, columns, mirrors, alcoves and even the two tremendous hearths.
At the far end of the room they saw a group of at least ten artisans dressed alike in black and white, who were in the process of getting themselves comfortable enough for several hours of providing a pleasant diversion in the form of music.
“There will be dancing, I suppose?” Eryn whispered towards Erbál. “At least this is what this setup of a large, free space without any tables and chairs and plenty of musicians would suggest. I assume people will be considerate enough not to expect us to join in?”
Erbál confirmed it. “You are right. They will dance, and no, nobody expects you to prove yourself knowledgeable in the art of dancing the local dances. You may stand to one side and simply watch. You will find the dancing to be quite different from what you know. There is the basic idea of one woman standing up with one man, yet the dances themselves involve frequent interaction among different couples. It is all a well-timed and precise matter which is pleasant to behold, yet exposes any false step at once.”
“Sounds charming,” Eryn deadpanned, glad she didn’t have to be a part of it.
Their task for this evening was to be seen, talk to as many people as possible and all in all leave a positive impression to induce people to be more willing to cooperate and assist or at least not hamper the investigations.
According to that guest list Erbál had made them memorise, there would be five judges and six members of the government present at this little occasion. Those were the ones Eryn and Enric had to assign as their priority. Though they would have to rely on Erbál to point them in the right directions and perform the introductions, because otherwise all these people were no more than an anonymous mass of pompous clothes, colourful faces and odd hairstyles.
Erbál had explained to them that there wouldn’t be any great general introduction of the guests of honour to the others guests. People would rather intend to talk to them and make their acquaintances. And those who did not wish to do so but were merely attending to have a pleasant evening out could do that as well.
Eryn shivered when she saw how tightly some women’s dresses had been pulled around their waists. How could they even move? Could they endeavour to undertake something as perilous as a dance without fainting from the effort after a few minutes? Well, she would see soon enough.
The ambassador introduced them to a number of people from the list, who had expressed an interest in becoming acquainted with them. He did the introductions in the local language, and Eryn found that she could follow the words with increasing ease every time she heard them repeated.
Even so, she decided against putting her foreign language skills to the test for now. Yet one never knew whether it might turn out to be useful that people forgot that she understood a lot of what was being spoken around her.
About one hour must have passed, before the musicians made themselves heard with a gentle refrain, as if carefully reminding people of their presence.
“This is the invitation for those guests who wish to dance to assemble in the centre of the room,” Erbál explained to them. “It is always the same melody at the beginning to signal to people that the dancing part of the evening is about to start. Come on, let us move a back a little.” He led them to a spot from where they could watch the goings on without being in the way.
They watched as twelve couples stepped forward and separated to form opposing lines, one consisting solely of women, the other of their male partners. When all were arranged and ready for the dance to begin, the musicians ended their initial tune and began with another.
“Is it always exactly twelve couples?” Enric asked of Erbál.
“In general, yes. Though there are a few for smaller gatherings which require only six. And two, I believe, where sixteen couples stand up together.”
The row of men bowed their heads to the women as one, then the ladies followed suit. This turned out to be the opening to a pattern of movements which required of every single person to know exactly what they were supposed to be doing. Every second couple stepped forward towards each other, but instead of reaching out for their own designated partners, they turned to one side to step towards their partner’s neighbour instead, took their hands and executed a circle before returning to their former spot.
Enric observed the motion sequences, mesmerised by the unpredictable patterns which kept changing every few seconds.
“This is… impressive,” he murmured towards Erbál. “Is this what all the dances look like?”
“As a rule, yes. Dancing is not something that is considered an act for two people, but rather one for an entire society. It requires interaction, precision, elegance and plenty of exercise. One mistake by a single dancer might disrupt the order of the entire group.”
Suddenly the balls back in Anyueel didn’t seem quite as dreary anymore. At least dancing didn’t hold the constant risk of exposing oneself as incompetent just because a moment of inattention led to a missed step or cue.
“The pace seems to me rather slow,” Enric remarked. “Not a very dynamic pastime, dancing. Or is it just this very piece?”
The ambassador smiled faintly. “Look around at the dresses, Enric. What do you think would happen if you subjected these women to any gruelling activities? They would pass out.”
“How long do people generally practice their dancing before they are considered fit to do so in public without embarrassing themselves?” Eryn asked next.
“Several years. It is part of the classic education among wealthy citizens. Children are taught to dance from the age of ten. There are special events just for young people to show off their progress and practice for the actual dancing at important gatherings with influential guests.”
Eryn pressed her lips tight together. So this kind of dancing was a distinguishing feature of the rich and mighty. Another thing to dislike in this place. So far, her first impression of Kar had not been a particularly positive one. Ridiculous clothes, an exaggerated fondness for titles and a very clear idea of privileges versus an amazing system that provided hot water on demand at the turn of a knob.
She didn’t want to watch this blatant demonstration of expensive education any longer. There had to be a place where she could catch a few minutes of peace and quiet.
* * *
Eryn exhaled and stared at her mirror image surrounded by the spacious bathroom into which she had escaped for a few precious minutes free from polite conversation and ostentatious demonstrations of privileged upbringing.
The dark, artfully painted lines on the edges of her eyelids had started to look rather smeared. The reason for that was probably the sweat that seemed to be dampening her whole skin. She wondered how stained the fabric under her arms would be once she got out of the dress later. She grabbed a small towel, filled the ceramic bowl in front of her with water from one of the marvellous pipe contraptions and dipped the towel into it. Then she softly dabbed around her eyes to remove most of the black colour that was meant to make her eyes appear larger. Next she washed the beads of perspiration from her forehead and continued to touch the cool, moist towel to every piece of uncovered skin she could reach. That would cool her down for a little while at least.
With a last long-suffering look at her two-dimensional counterpart, she opened the door and stepped outside into the pleasantly quiet corridor with the lights just bright enough to enable visitors to find their way. From afar she could hear the sedate and slightly melancholic music that was tailored to the women’s limited ability to move. It would be more considerate to free them of the prison of those contraptions they called dresses here instead of allowing them to dance without any fast movement, Eryn thought glumly, and forced herself to progress towards the spirited assembly. Well, at least the male part thereof could afford to be spirited – the females might faint if they tried.
Every few steps of the way she passed another closed door with doorframes twice as tall as herself featuring elaborately carved ornamentation. Her pace slowed as she beheld a door which stood ajar. It hadn’t been doing that when she had come this way several minutes ago. There was no light inside, so it was probably safe to assume that it was unoccupied. She looked around to check that she was unobserved and approached the door. Her reluctance to return to the others and the curiosity of what a regular room in this mansion might look like made her push the door open a little wider. She stilled when she heard a strange, regular, metallic sound that reminded her of a turning lock. Maybe it was another device just like her sound machine or the mechanical toy?
Grateful, that the hinges of the large door were well maintained and didn’t creak, she slipped inside the room. Even after a few seconds of letting her eyes get used to the dark, she still couldn’t recognise more than what had to be the uneven silhouettes of furniture. Only the light spilling in from the corridor behind her illuminated her immediate surroundings enough so at least she wouldn’t bump into anything.
She followed the strange sound a few steps and found herself face to face with a round disc under which some bulky, elongated objects were dangling. She could only make them out because the dark material presented such a stark contrast to the bright wall behind it.
“What have we here,” she murmured to herself and tried to make out more details in the semi-darkness.
The round disc seemed to be marked in regular intervals, though she couldn’t say if the markings were merely decorative or meant to serve any particular purpose. Behind it was some kind of mechanism that produced the sound that had drawn her in. She couldn’t see a thing as she peered behind it. The disc swallowed even the last bit of light that came in through the open door. Reluctant to touch and somehow damage it, she took a step back and sighed.
“Not much chance without light,” she muttered to herself and was about to turn around, when a pleasant male voice from the darkness caused her to freeze.
“Allow me to oblige you,” it offered helpfully in the typical accent of the locals when they spoke her language.
Oh no – Enric would give her an earful for this, she thought before the quiet sound of a scratch was followed by a small flame which was used to light first one lamp and then another.
Eryn blinked in the sudden brightness, then found a man sitting on an tasteful sofa that looked as though it were meant more for decoration than comfortable sitting. So she had been wrong in assuming that this room was unoccupied. What kind of person slunk off like that and hid themselves in a dark room? Well, probably one just like yourself, she couldn’t help but think.
“Gistor Maltheá, Reig of House Vel’kim, Explorer in Takhan, I presume,” the foreign yet pleasant voice went on. It didn’t sound like a question. But then she very likely was the only female visitor from down south in the city at this moment, so guessing her identity correctly was not exactly much of an impressive achievement.
“Yes, I am.”
Her eyes were getting used to the light now and allowed her to take in her unexpected companion in more detail. He looked to be about her own age, trim in appearance and just a little less colourful than the other men she had laid eyes on this evening. That alone endeared him to her. His light brown hair was smoothed back as was obviously the fashion here and offered an unrestricted view of intelligent grey eyes, an almost chiselled nose and a thin stripe of a beard which followed the outline of his chin and upper lip. A handsome, appealing face. One which was currently expressing amusement.
“I didn’t mean to intrude. Really,” she hurriedly assured him. “I apologise for interrupting… whatever you were doing in here. I shall no longer disturb you and be on my way.”
“I was under the impression that you wished to inspect the clock,” he replied politely. “You were not disturbing me in any way. I merely take the liberty of spending a few minutes in solitary contemplation when the strain of being social has grown too fatiguing for me.”
While she still pondered how to react to that statement, he rose. He was noticeably taller than herself and moved with nearly flawless elegance.
He stopped at a comfortable distance so as to avoid intimidating or imposing on her space.
“I take it you are not familiar with mechanical means of time measurement?” he enquired politely.
“I… no. We use different methods such as water clocks or oil lamps with markings in Anyueel, and the Western Territories use sand glasses and sundials instead,” she replied.
“Then permit me the pleasure of introducing you to the mechanisms we employ for this purpose,” the helpful stranger offered.
Eryn nodded, glad that her intrusion had not been met with anger but with unhoped-for obligingness. Upon his invitation she stepped once again closer to the clock. The disk was marked by the twelve symbols she recognised as the local digits. And looking behind it, she now saw that the mechanism seemed to consist solely of several cogwheels in different sizes and a coil with a thin rope bearing some small weights.
“This here is a very old specimen,” the man explained to her. “I would guess that it must have been in the Weisen family for at least two centuries. An heirloom, if this is the correct term.”
Two centuries, Eryn thought, her throat tight. This amazing thing was outdated here, while at her home it would be a spectacular novelty.
Without any prompting he began to explain the mechanism.
“This type of clock is made up of very basic components. This here” – he pointed to a medium-sized wheel with particularly fine teeth – “is the gear device called a mainwheel. Behind it there is a long, thin metal strip which is known as the mainspring. It is a device which stores energy. The amount which can be stored depends very much on the elasticity of the material and its effective length.” Then he pointed to an assortment of four gears. “The first three of those together form the wheel train. The first gear of the wheel train shows the minutes, the third one the seconds. It is powered by the weights you see hanging down here. Yet since we would not wish to have the entire power released too fast, we need a means to control its release. This combination of parts is called the escapement and contains a balance wheel which swings back and forth and so controls the release of the power, one tooth at a time.”
Eryn stared at the gearwheels of different diameters and with a variation of differently sized and modelled teeth. She tried to combine what she had heard just now with the very basic knowledge in mechanics she had acquired through the devices she had managed to disassemble at home.
“So the weights put pressure on this here, which then releases it, but not too fast, which brings us to these components up here, which are responsible for keeping it all slow and regular. This movement is then transferred to these gears here, which move the pointers around the disc,” she tried to put it into her own words, hoping she wasn’t making a complete fool of herself.
The man thought for a moment, his elegantly shaped brow creased as he tried to link her amateurish explanation to his former words. Then he nodded.
“Yes, you can say it like that. Well done.”
Eryn took a step back to focus on the other side of the dial, with all the numbers and the three short rods.
“How is the third pointer moved? You only mentioned gears for two of them.”
“We like to refer to the pointers as clock hands. And you are right, I mentioned only two of them. Very perceptive of you. There is an extra wheel for the slowest hand which is only moved after a certain number of rotations of the minute wheel.”
“How do I read this?” she asked on. “You divide your days into only twelve units? That is a completely new concept to me. I am used to twenty-four hours.”
“As are we. The hour hand moves around the clock face twice in one day.”
“Which one is that? The chubby one?”
He blinked, then smiled. “Yes, the less athletic looking one. The slimmer one is for minutes, and the long, thin hand is for seconds. Each rotation of the hand for seconds causes the minute hand to move ahead one small marking. And after passing sixty small markings, the hour hand will be moved ahead.”
Eryn stared at the clock face for half a minute, then ventured, “So right now it is nineteen hours, twenty-eight minutes and about forty seconds into the day.”
“That is correct. Though we rather say it is seven twenty-eight in the evening.”
“What happens if the weights reach the end of the string?”
“Then the clock must be rewound in order to continue its service.”
She nodded slowly, caught in this fascinating new way of using cogwheels to measure time.
“Though as I said, this is a dated mechanism. We have in the meantime developed more sophisticated ones without any need for weights or pendulums.” He cocked his head. “You would not by any chance be interested in learning more about them?”
Eryn looked up at him and gulped. She knew how rigidly this country guarded its technology and knowledge. This man might already be in trouble if anyone found out about his little lesson just now.
“I’m not sure this would be such a sensible idea. I appreciate the offer, yet I wouldn’t wish to cause you any difficulties,” she forced herself to say.
His laugh expressed genuine amusement. “Did your ambassador provide you with a list of notable public persons? Or at least with a guest list for this evening?”
She eyed him, slightly confused. What kind of a question was that in response to her worries about his well-being?
“A guest list, yes. Why?”
“I assume he impressed on you the importance of memorising it in order to be able to address people correctly?”
“Yes! Why do you ask?” she cried out, getting impatient.
“Then I am confident that my name will be familiar to you.” He straightened slightly. “I am Etor Gart, Legen of the Durachts, first level counsel of Pirinkar. It is my pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
Eryn frowned for a moment as she tried to recall the category under which his name had been put. He was right, it did sound familiar.
Her eyes widened, as the memory returned. “Etor Gart! Top level government representative!” Damn it, he was important, and not just a bit! And to have met him under such circumstances!
“That is true. So you see that I am empowered to make this offer to you without risking imprisonment or any other kind of sanction,” he smiled. “Though I am touched by your concerns.” He lifted his right arm to offer it to her. “Shall we return to the other guests?”
* * *
Erbál nudged Enric as subtly as he was able to and nodded towards Eryn, who re-entered the room, her hand resting on a man’s arm.
“I know him,” Enric murmured and closed his eyes to conjure up the image of the courtroom six years ago. This man had been seated at the top table. So he was one of the government representatives. “Government,” he added.
The ambassador nodded. “Yes. Etor Gart. A smart man deriving little joy from social occasions such as this one. He shares a trait with your companion in this regard – he likes to sneak off and hide for a few minutes every now and then. No wonder his and Eryn’s paths crossed. They were probably trying to hide in the same nook.”
“But he is a useful man to have met,” Enric whispered back, more than willing to forgive Eryn her suspiciously long bathroom break if this was the outcome. Particularly, since the man looked quite content. That was an unusual reaction to meeting Eryn at an event such as this one. People who tried or were forced to interact with her generally reacted in irritated and annoyed manners rather than being pleased.
“That he is,” Erbál agreed and smiled as the two came in their direction.
“Lam Enric, Reig of House Aren, Second-in-Command of the Order. I am pleased to see you again, even though the circumstances are serious,” Etor Gart greeted him and nodded his head.
Enric responded in kind. “As am I, Etor Gart, Legen of the Durachts, first level counsel of Pirinkar. We hope to bring this all to a satisfying conclusion.”
Then Etor Gart acknowledged Erbál, switching to his native language. “Lam Erbál, Legen of the Ferals, Ambassador to Kar. It is a pleasure to see you here.”
“The pleasure is all mine, Etor Gart, Legen of the Durachts, first level counsel of Pirinkar. I see you already met Gistor Maltheá, Reig of House Vel’kim, Explorer in Takhan.”
Eryn concentrated hard to follow the exchange – particularly after her name was mentioned.
“I did.” He smiled at her. “I found her interest in mechanical devices and her perceptive faculty most stimulating.”
Then he excused himself and sauntered off, stopping every now and again to talk to other people.
“What did he say? I didn’t really catch that last bit,” she frowned. “Did he say I stimulated him? I swear, I did nothing of that kind! He just explained a clock to me, and the only time I touched him was when I took his arm to walk back here.”
“No, it was nothing of that sort,” Erbál assured her quickly. “He was impressed with your intelligence. It seems he likes you.”
Eryn was pleased by this assessment. After meeting Lam Ceiga, she had feared that all people here would treat her with such cold indifference.
“Let us not stand here but rather seek to introduce you to as many people as we can,” the ambassador suggested. “We are here to work, after all.”
And work they did. Eryn found that merely talking to people was not quite as bad as having to dance with them. She also valued that there was no need to display any exaggerated joy at meeting people; nothing but a polite assurance of her pleasure was required. That meant her cheeks would at the end of this evening not be tired from the strain of forced smiling.
Even though they started their rounds together, they ended up in conversations with different people and progressed on their own at different speeds and in different directions. This person wished to introduce them to that person, and they simply had to meet a good friend, family member or acquaintance.
Enric dutifully answered questions about his home country, what exactly the Order was and why he had undertaken the journey to Kar, though the answers to all three were of course amended to a degree he saw appropriate to the listener. Erbál stayed with him for a while, then he went off in search of Eryn to remain at her side for a time before returning to her companion.
“I already had the pleasure of meeting your very charming and appealing companion,” Enric’s latest conversation partner said politely. Appealing. What an odd way of expressing himself when talking about another man’s companion. Maybe a clumsily chosen expression in a foreign language, he thought. Though the man’s next words made it clear that this was not the case.
“I was wondering whether you would accept my offer for her company tonight?”
With that a piece of sturdy, expensive-looking paper was pushed into Enric’s hand. He stared at the man, forcing himself to get his rage at such an impertinent request under control, and quickly.
Erbál next to him coughed and smiled at the man who had manoeuvred himself into mortal danger without realising it.
“Will you excuse us for a short moment? Lam Enric, Reig of House Aren, Second-in-Command of the Order will be with you in a moment.” He grabbed Enric’s arm and pulled him aside and behind a column which afforded them at least a modicum of privacy.
Enric’s eyes had narrowed. He was furious as he hissed, “What was that supposed to mean? Is that some sort of test or was that imbecile serious just now? This must be some kind of insult where they want to see how I react, how far I can be pushed!”
“You must calm down at once, Enric!” the ambassador urged him. “The act of expressing the desire to spend a night with another person’s companion in exchange for monetary compensation is an accepted practice here. The request in itself is not an insult. Though offering you a low amount would be. Let us have a look at the paper he gave you. Then we can tell whether this is meant as a test or an honest offer.”
Enric unfolded the paper and stared at a three-digit figure. After a quick calculation he compared the amount to Anyueel gold pieces. “That’s what he would pay for a night with Eryn?”
Erbál nodded, relieved. “He would. It is a generous offer, and I am glad to say that you have not been insulted, but paid a rather large compliment instead.”
Enric exhaled and closed his eyes. “Why didn’t you prepare us for this sort of thing? Don’t you think mentioning this beforehand might have spared us some tension?”
“I apologise. To be honest, I had not really counted on anyone approaching you with an offer of that kind. You are strangers here, and in general people would give you more time to adapt to their customs rather than expect that you are familiar with all of them from your first day on.” Erbál turned Enric around. “Now you will return to the nice man, thank him for his generous offer and decline it politely without disparaging him, the custom or the society it originates from. Off you go.”
Enric threw him a dark look over his shoulder but did as he was told. This was absurd. He was about to thank a man for expressing an interest in a night of wild pleasures with Eryn! At home he would have broken his nose by now. And maybe a rib or two.
He reached the man who smiled politely as he waited for his reply.
“I thank you for your interest and your generosity, yet I am afraid I am not able accept your offer,” Enric explained politely and nodded his head before turning away. It was time to find Eryn and warn her.
* * *
“He did what?” Eryn gasped and stared at her companion in horror. That couldn’t be true! Surely no man who had exchanged hardly more than a few sentences with her had been so daft as to a approach her companion to try and procure a night with her?
“A little more quietly, if you do not mind,” hissed Erbál. “Look, this is common practice here. If somebody takes a fancy to another person’s companion, they take very polite steps in their attempt to secure a night of pleasure for themselves. That means offering a compensation and, if it is accepted, approaching the person in question to invite them.”
“This is insane!” Eryn complained under her breath, feeling how the heat rose into her head. Such a nerve to assume her body was for sale! Did she look quite that desperate and in need of money that somebody would assume she might even consider accepting such a brazen offer? What kind of message did the clothes Erbál had dressed her in send?
“It is common practice here, and I would urge you to postpone this discussion until we have left here. In the meantime I can advise you to consider it a compliment and merely resort to politely declining any such requests should more of them be made to you,” Erbál insisted in a low murmur.
Eryn ground her teeth, then she narrowed her eyes. A compliment, eh? Well, that remained to be seen.
“Who was it?” she demanded to know.
“You mean who expressed an interest in your company?” Enric asked, none too happy about her interest.
“Yes. Show me.”
Her companion sighed and turned around, back towards the guests. Several of them were dancing, while others stood around and conversed over a glass of some or other drink.
“You see the man in the green coat with the dark-yellow vest beneath?”
“That tall one with the red hair and moustache?”
“No, further to the right. Dark hair with grey temples.”
Eryn regarded him for several moments, then shrugged. He was not exactly of striking appearance, but still appealing enough so she wouldn’t have guessed that he needed to pay for sexual intercourse. Or be willing to. Well, that probably meant she could consider it a compliment.
Erbál took the small piece of thick paper from Enric’s hand and gave it to Eryn. “Here. This is what he offered Enric for the pleasure of your company.”
Eryn unfolded it and frowned at the figure. She quickly calculated how much that equalled in Anyueel gold pieces. One Pirinkar coin was about one and three quarters of a gold piece… Her eyes widened.
“That’s more than five-hundred gold pieces!” she breathed. “For one single night with me?”
“Five-hundred and twenty-five,” Enric added dryly. “May I assume that now you are willing to consider the offer a compliment rather than an insult?”
“Well…” She gulped. “I suppose so.” She turned to Erbál. “Though that would depend on what the going rate for such arrangements is.”
“Let me assure you that he was more generous than I would have expected. It seems the notion of boasting that he was the first to spend a night with you appealed greatly to him.”
“So you are saying that you don’t think I’d be worth it and you are surprised somebody else might disagree with you on that?” she growled, for some inscrutable reason offended by his words.
“You are certainly worth it to him, and that is all that counts,” the ambassador retorted with a grin. “I did wound your pride a little just now, I fear. Please forgive me – I did not mean to be ungallant. I am sure you would be a wonderful diversion for any man lucky enough to secure your company for a night.”
“I am the only man who secures her company for any and all nights,” Enric cut in rather sharply, signalling none too subtly that he was unwilling to pursue this topic any further. He had preferred it when she had still been appalled at being treated like a commodity instead of discussing how justified the offered amount was. “How much longer do we need to stay?” he then asked, surprising his companion. This was the very first time he was the one to ask that very question rather than her.
Erbál knew better than to make fun of him at this precise moment. “The guests will soon be called to the tables in the adjoining room for a late supper. This is the accepted time for the first guests to take their leave without causing offence.”
“Good. Then let’s do exactly that. Or at least Eryn and I will. You are free to stay on without us, of course.”
The ambassador shook his head and smiled. “I would rather join you and hear about your impressions of this evening.”
* * *
Erbál handed Eryn a steaming cup with the creamy, sweet drink people here – particularly children – favoured at the end and the beginning of the day. She took it gingerly, careful only to touch the handle and avoid burning her fingers.
It was close to midnight, and she had just changed out of that terrible dress and into her nightshirt. It was not exactly appropriate to present herself in her sleeping attire to anyone but members of her family, but decorum be damned. She wasn’t indecently revealing anything and would have found it utterly ridiculous to change into something else when they would soon retire anyway. And this was Erbál, an old friend who had never even once shown any undue interest in her, had not even teasingly flirted with her the way Ram’kel, his successor, sometimes did for amusement. And that Enric seemed relaxed enough despite his tendency towards jealousy had to mean that it was an acceptable exception.
Once she was seated, Enric turned toward their host. “Now. Tell me more about that odd custom of buying a few hours with another person’s companion. It strikes me as rather strange in a culture which appreciates emotional distance, is overly-correct in documenting any possible issue and makes sure to maintain boundaries towards others.”
Erbál smiled. “I know that you are familiar with the principle of prostitution in Anyueel. And in Takhan. Paying for sexual favours is said to be among the oldest trades. What is new here is merely the fact that companionships here do not imply the same degree of exclusiveness when it comes to enjoying one’s partner’s charms.”
Eryn frowned. “Wasn’t that initially the whole reason for establishing companionships? To constitute a legal claim for just that exclusiveness?”
“Many centuries or even millennia ago it was,” the ambassador agreed. “Though if you consider the reasons for it, then you may see why they do not consider it quite as necessary nowadays. Firstly, all this happened before magical healing was an issue, meaning that illnesses transferred through sexual intercourse were quite an issue. Not having your partner sleep with other persons was a way to avoid cross-infection. And then there was the point of making sure that your offspring really were yours. At least in case of men. This is also why men generally were stricter when it came to female infidelity, not really realising that their companions would have been be in less danger of being approached by another man if these other men had been punished just as harshly.”
Enric looked at the ceiling, thinking. “So you are saying the practical considerations that made monogamy desirable are no longer required to maintain physical health and avoid having to raise another man’s children? This would mean that emotional involvement does not exactly play a major role in a commitment here. My primary reason for not wanting Eryn to sleep with other men is certainly not my fear of her becoming pregnant or passing on any illness to me. It’s the unwillingness to share someone I love and who I consider mine.”
Erbál nodded his assent. “Indeed. Though we need to distinguish among the classes in this matter. Most commitments here are not the result of two people falling in love and swearing everlasting love to each other. It is mostly about financial and political considerations – as well as the wish to avoid any magically cursed offspring.”
“Just like in the Western Territories, then,” muttered Eryn. “Only that they seek to increase magical potential instead of eliminating it.”
“Now, now,” Erbál replied with mild reproach in his voice, “I do beg to differ. At home we merely seek to encourage young people to make advantageous matches – we certainly do not force them to in the case of them being disinclined. Do think about your sister Pe’tala – she is a good example for this. She chose not to commit to her suitor, and this was accepted without any attempts at pressuring her to do it anyway. Well, none from her father or the boy’s parents at least. We do appreciate emotional involvement since we would not wish our children to become bitter and unhappy. And with emotional involvement the issue of sharing your partner with others becomes an unacceptable option.”
Enric looked thoughtful. “You mentioned the need to distinguish between social classes. I assume this means that arranged commitments are primarily a strategy of the higher classes? Everyone else still follows the principle of committing to another person out of love?”
Erbál smiled. “Well, let us instead say that they at least consider following the heart an ideal. Just as in probably any other place in the world, commitments have an impact on your financial standing. A rich merchant’s or craftsman’s children will always have more suitors than a poor street sweeper’s. This is no different here than in any of our countries.”
“So swapping partners to one’s heart’s content is merely a decadent custom among the rich since they were forced into loveless commitments. How endearing,” Eryn growled. “Do the women at least have a say in whom they spend the night with or are they merely informed about the address at which to show up?”
“You misunderstand,” Erbál corrected her. “This does not merely concern women but also men. If you met an appealing man you wished to spend the night with, you might just as well approach his companion and make an offer for the pleasure of his company. Should she accept, it is not at that point a promise that it will actually take place. It is no more than her consent that you may proceed and invite him. He still has every right to refuse you, should you not be to his liking. The same goes for women. Had Enric agreed to the offer tonight, you would still have been in a position to refuse it.”
“Come to think of it,” Enric mused, “I suppose it fits with the culture, after all. It is a rather cold and distant way of seeking fulfilment of one’s physical desires.”
“It’s prostitution, that’s what it is,” Eryn growled.
Erbál shrugged. “That is one point of view. Not one I share, mind you. Prostitution is in my opinion not a trade among equals but one where one person’s needs have precedence. This is not the case here. Both parties have to agree, and since we are talking about a social class which in general is not in desperate need of money, financial incentives hardly ever play a great role.” He paused for a short moment, then he amended, “Though I have to admit that persons of extremely high social standing are refused considerably less often, if ever.”
“Meaning it would constitute an insult, and that people wouldn’t wish to alienate important people?” Eryn guessed. “What does that mean for us? How important was the man who made an offer for me tonight?”
The ambassador waved her off. “As his offer shows, he has considerable funds at his disposal, but he does not occupy an office that would enable him to make our life harder if cooperation were refused. Though you can never say who his friends are and whether they would be willing to make you pay for any perceived insult.”
“That means we had better hope nobody like Etor Gart makes an offer,” Enric growled. “I have no intention of indulging anyone to such a degree just so we gain a chance of progress.”
“I am confident that this would not be necessary,” Erbál tried to soothe him. “People in his position are generally more careful in such matters. Most of them are without a doubt aware that your own countries do not hold with this kind of custom.”
“You might be wrong again,” Enric retorted without mercy, “you also thought nobody would be so bold as to approach us with an offer like that little more than a day after our arrival here.”
Erbál pursed his lips for a moment in reaction to this reproach, but remained calm. “You are right, I misjudged the situation,” he admitted a touch stiffly. He was known for being immensely cautious when making assumptions. Pe’tala had some years ago even laughed about her sister because she had doubted Erbál’s words since he was known always to be right. It had to irk him that he had been mistaken. And Enric’s pointing it out so forthright had to make it even more unpleasant.
“Well, this was just a minor thing. And no harm was done,” Eryn threw in, her tone conciliatory. With a sideways glance at Enric she added, “I have yet to meet a person whose predictions never fail to come true.”
Enric took the hint and sighed, then he turned towards Erbál. “I apologise. This incident threw me off balance, and the thought that my refusal to permit other men to be intimate with my companion might lead to complications makes me edgy. And that the men in this city think they have the liberty of even considering Eryn a possible bed partner disturbs me even more.”
“I understand,” Erbál replied generously. “Not to worry. I did not take offence. I can only tell you that the law forbids non-consensual intercourse, meaning it is in your power to deny it. Any attempt at forcing Eryn would not only bring public shame to the person who tried it but would also be followed by serious legal consequences. But let us dwell no longer on this unpleasant business and rather discuss how we should proceed.”
Eryn raised a questioning brow and described with her index finger a half circle in the air. It was the gesture the King had used with her when he had visited her at the clinic a few years ago to indicate that she ought to raise a soundproof barrier. But unlike herself back then, Erbál immediately seemed to grasp what she meant. He shook his head almost imperceptibly, signalling to her that potential concealed listeners would not gain any valuable insights from the ensuing conversation. It was a topic they were expected to discuss.
“We ought to get in contact with the priests,” Enric suggested.
The ambassador nodded. “That was also what I was thinking. I would recommend not starting with your enquiries right away, but rather work on establishing a relationship first. People here are reluctant to share information or cooperate with strangers. Which means you ought to work on not being perceived as strangers.”
Eryn sighed. That sounded like a time-consuming endeavour – particularly, since they were talking about five different temples here. Vedric would probably have entered puberty before his parents’ return, she ruminated sourly.
“I recommend starting with the Temple of the Inner Circle,” Erbál advised.
Her brow rose. “That’s the one where Malriel’s accuser came from.”
“The very one,” he agreed. “My hopes are that they are still sufficiently embarrassed to agree to cooperate with you as a way of making amends.”
“Then we shall start there,” Enric concurred, eager to show that he trusted Erbál’s judgement after insulting him earlier. “I remember the notes on the temples you made in Takhan during your annual visits. I briefly went through them once again before our rather hurried departure, but I would value your help in recalling the details. And Eryn hasn’t seen them at all.”
Erbál nodded and settled more comfortably into his massive chair as if to prepare for a lengthy conversation. Eryn reheated her creamy drink and sipped it while listening to how magicians lived here in this city.
»End of extract«
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